Britain’s restaurants are suffering. Since the start of the pandemic, a countless number have closed, unable to remain financially solvent after months of lockdown, reduced bookings and now the much contested 10PM curfew. A recent trade body report warned that 50 percent of the UK’s hospitality businesses could fail by March of 2021.
Restaurant staff have rallied to save their industry, calling for a representative in Parliament and marching in their hundreds through central London, yet it seems sadly inevitable that we’ll have to say goodbye to more of our favourite restaurants, cafes, pubs and bars before the pandemic ends.
Of course, a few shuttered restaurants is by no means the worst of a health crisis that has so far claimed over a million lives, but that doesn’t make the loss any less significant. Restaurants and bars aren’t like other businesses. As the New York Times declared in June, back when venues were still forbidden from opening, our lives happen in restaurants. They provide the backdrop for first dates, bad dates, parties, celebratory dinners, solo lunches, birthday drinks, leaving drinks, after-work drinks, drinks because it’s Tuesday and no one is getting any younger. They’re the place you go when you are tired of your flat and your own cooking, and you need to be warmed by the happy conversation of other people.
It feels right, then, to give the London eateries we have loved, and lost to coronavirus, an appropriate send-off. A memorial to the moments we spent eating and drinking between their sriracha-splattered walls. Here are obituaries for some of our favourite fallen restaurants, departed from this world for the big serving plate in the sky. Rest in power, friends.
I’m not a fan of dinner dates. In the first flush of a flirtation, sitting down for a meal feels oddly formal. If you want to eat anywhere decent, you have to book – or, worse, queue – but you risk revealing your neuroses if you’re too pushy about making a plan. And the alternative, leaving the choice to a person you barely know? Even riskier.
“Have you ever been to Jidori in Dalston?” I wrote in a text message, trying to sound casual as I set about arranging a second date for the coming Friday night. He had been and, unprompted, offered to make a reservation.
Tsukune served with an egg yolk dipping sauce at Jidori in happier times. Photo: Laura Martin
Jidori used to house a wedding dress shop.
It was February, and bitterly cold. I surveyed the restaurant’s handsome blonde wood, pastel ceramics, flattering lighting. And then, lightly buzzed on adrenaline and the glass of red wine he’d bought me at a nearby pub, I did something I almost never do. Distracted by the person rather than the list of slightly overpriced small plates in front of me, I ordered the set menu. Omakase, chef’s choice. There was sake, pickles, spinach ohitashi, a bowl of steamed rice. The yakitori arrived on a sharing platter; juicy skewers of wing with shiso and lemon, chargrilled thigh and spring onion, and my favourite, tsukune (minced chicken spiked with chives and served with an egg yolk for dipping). The kind of food that’s even more satisfying if you’re already a little drunk. We ate the chicken with our hands. It was perfect. I don’t remember how any of it tasted.
In London, there are over 900 blue plaques fixed to the city’s buildings, each one commemorating the notable people who have lived or worked in them. Lived, worked or loved. ‘Blue plaque,’ I think, every time I walk down Kingsland High Street. Simran Hans
SHEPHERDESS CAFE, HOXTON
I was suffering from one of those hangovers that make the thought of a cold knife slicing neatly into your brain seem actually quite refreshing. I couldn’t stop thinking about the night before, and how critically unfunny it had been when I’d taken the life-sized Danny DeVito cut-out someone had given the birthday girl and humped it in front of a rapidly sobering audience of civil servants.
It was then that my friend Lucy recommended we go to the Shepherdess Cafe. “It will make you feel better,” she said. “Plus, celebrities always go there – like Barry from EastEnders.”
An hour later, we were at a green-fronted cafe in Hoxton. I ordered a full English breakfast with hash browns instead of black pudding, no eggs and extra bacon.
“You’re literally so annoying,” Lucy said, as the waitress scribbled my order onto a pad.
I’m not sure if my choices constituted substitutions, or if we were supposed to be ordering at the till, but the waitress smiled and ripped off the ticket. “£6.80,” she said.
I got out some coins, most of which were blurring and bending beneath my eyes. The waitress counted them out for me. “You’ve given me too much,” she said, pushing 50p back in my direction.
When the food arrived, the sausage was one of those floppy and unnaturally pink specimens that makes you not want to know which part of the pig it came from, if in fact it ever was a pig. This is a compliment. The unspecified meat sausage was exactly what I wanted to eat. As was the golden brown toast, the buttery mushrooms, the salty bacon that grated against my gums. After clearing my plate, I licked baked bean residue from my fingertips and washed the whole artery-clogging meal down with a hot mug of builder’s tea. Slowly, my brain started to work again.
I continued to visit the Shepherdess long after my first hangover breakfast. You never knew who you’d find in there. Men in hi-vis jackets with cement-splattered work boots who need only nod at a waitress for their very precise order to arrive. Skint students with Napapijri fleeces and “SCUM” written in swirling tattoo script on their necks, gossiping over steaming coffees. Ed Balls liked Shepherdess Cafe, but so did bus drivers, shopkeepers, teenagers and media wankers like me.
Between the green-checked curtains, ketchup dispensers, leather booths and retina-scarring strip lighting, there existed a warm solidarity. My theory is that it is hard to be in a bad mood when your stomach is exploding with hot tea and animal fat. But also, the Shepherdess was an innately welcoming place.
The Shepherdess didn’t survive COVID because it’s hard enough at the best of times to make central London rent while charging little more than a fiver for a full breakfast. Take away footfall and it’s impossible – even after 37 years of service. The post-pandemic London looks set to be an endless tarmacked expanse of abandoned Prets. Who will be able to afford the rent of the old Shepherdess site now? A cafe that sells matcha lattes? A cafe that serves water with floating cucumbers?
Most likely: a cafe that is nothing like the Shepherdess I knew. Annie Lord
YOUNG CHENG, CHINATOWN
London’s Chinatown felt the effects of coronavirus long before the country went into lockdown. Footfall dropped after Lunar New Year, with many afraid to catch a virus that the media (and the US President) wrongly associated with China. Many were victims of racism – myself included – and there continues to be a disturbing rise in hate crime against East and South East Asians.
Walk through central Chinatown today and you’ll find that life is returning to its restaurants. Leave the main Gerrard Street strip, however, and things are a little different. Many restaurants, supermarkets and bars are still shuttered or eerily quiet. Further down the street, next to See Woo supermarket and Beijing Dumpling, is another victim of the pandemic. One of the city’s OG Cantonese restaurants: Young Cheng. A Chinatown stalwart since the 1980s, its gold and white frontage is now removed and the windows covered with newspaper.
A pre-coronavirus London Chinatown. Photo: Liz Seabrook
Somewhat overshadowed by the other big players in Chinatown, Young Cheng was always a reliable choice. Known for its Chinese buffet and all-day dim sum, prices were reasonable and service was good – depending on what mood the waiters were in. You’d be presented with a perfectly stacked pyramid of steaming hot hand towels on arrival and, if you asked nicely, you might be treated to an off-menu “stomach opener” of pork bone broth.
And then the food would arrive. Lobster, ginger and spring onion on a bed of wok-charred egg noodles, towering stacks of bamboo baskets containing an assortment of dim sum treasures piled so high it would block the view of whoever was sitting opposite. The best thing about Young Cheng, though, was the dessert: complimentary bowls of sweet sago and perfectly sliced fruit. It tasted good not just because it was free, but because it’s special to find a place that puts such love and care into the little touches.
In honour of Young Cheng, I’m going to buy myself a Lazy Susan and learn how to cut oranges into perfect slices. That way, I can keep my dessert spinning around the table, long into the second lockdown. RIP to a real one. Angela Hui
CoffeeWorks in Islington was an absolutely fine cafe. It looked like how a lot of coffee shops in central London look: industrial lamps, chalk on a blackboard, distressed wood and metal furniture, brick walls painted white. I used to duck in to send emails now and again, between other things I had to do. I think I had an almond croissant there once that was nice.
The reason I’m sad about it closing is a slightly perverse one, though. It was there that my last ex-boyfriend broke up with me. Technically, he broke up with me six months previously, in my bedroom, but this was the location of the post-mortem chat that really hammered the final nail in the coffin of it all, for me. It was one of those nuclear break-ups – the kind where you google “can you die of heartbreak” at dawn and ruin a whole week over an old text message. A listening-performatively-to-Sufjan-Stevens-in-the-rain kind of thing. The fact that it took me six months to even fully accept it was over should give you a flavour of how wretched I was being about it.
That was five years ago, and in the manner of all truly agonising break-ups, it baffles me now that I was this upset about him. But I was, and one of the keystone memories of this time – the hour I sat on the ground nursing an increasingly cold CoffeeWorks Americano – stands out for sheer abjection.
I don’t think you have to love a place to feel blue about its closure. When you live in a city for a very long time, in my case practically all my life, the map gets coloured by all the different memories you associate with it, good and bad. And every time a venue or a restaurant or shop disappears, it feels like a memory fades with it.
CoffeeWorks wasn’t my favourite place in London, far from it, but it will always be the 500-square-feet of business space where I asked somebody, “Do you still love me?” and nodded as I received the answer: “What is love? I love my friends. I love dogs.”
A useful pin in the map to remind me that even the most degrading misery is funny, if you give it long enough. Imogen West-Knights
DAILY GOODS, CAMBERWELL
Sometimes, I’m not even sure if I like coffee. It tastes bitter and makes me jittery and gives me breath like a substitute maths teacher. I look in the mirror and worry that my teeth are turning brown. What I actually like – something entirely unrelated to coffee’s taste – is the link I make between coffee and being in the hands of a master craftsman. To me, there is nothing more soothing than having someone who knows how to use a milk frother make me a coffee. The little cup! The latte art! The admittedly extortionate £3.75 price tag! I am here for it all.
This was why I liked Daily Goods, a coffee shop that occupied a central spot on Camberwell’s strip until the 23rd of March. The staff dressed well and there was always an exquisitely cool playlist on, one that spanned Black Album-era Jay Z, experimental jazz and Miley Cyrus but never managed to alienate the mums who came in with giant prams, or the local teens looking for somewhere to charge their phones. It was firmly part of the ever-encroaching “new” south London, the one that arts students and people like me elbowed their way into, but there was still something warm about it.
Mainly, though, Daily Goods made a really, really good flat white. Pretty much every residential area in London has a trusted neighbourhood coffee shop like Daily Goods. Or at least they used to, before COVID.
Every day now, when I wake up in hell and make my stupid little coffee, I think about Daily Goods. I think about how shit I am at heating the beans to the right temperature and how badly this government has failed to protect the livelihoods of anyone aside from their own cronies. I drink the bitter liquid and I miss my favourite cafe all over again. Phoebe Hurst