'It just doesn’t feel safe': The restaurants that will not reopen in 2020
Costs associated with restocking to reopen for such a short period has weighed heavily for some
Jumoke Akintola and Peter Hogan in their restaurant, Beach House, in Tramore, Co Waterford (photographed in February, before the imposition of Covid-19 restrictions), where they will run a Christmas market. Photograph: Patrick Browne
“We were going to do a five-day week. It was worth a lot of money to us. We had a very long discussion about it and we took it to a vote.”
Damien Grey, chef-proprietor of Liath restaurant in Blackrock, Co Dublin, is describing how a decision was reached not to open his Michelin-starred business, other than for takeaway, for the remainder of 2020. The decision will cost him €60,000 in lost revenue in the three weeks leading up to Christmas, he says.
“I didn’t make that decision just as the proprietor. I asked the team.” The decision was not immediately unanimous among the tight, five-strong kitchen and front-of-house team. “Majority ruled,” says Grey. Concern for the wellbeing of staff and customers was at the core of the decision. “The numbers are still too high. It just doesn’t feel safe to do it,” he says.
Despite Friday’s announcement that restaurants and gastropubs could reopen for indoor dining, with restrictions, from Friday, December 4th, Grey, and many others in the industry, will remain closed.
So instead of presenting 12-course tasting menus to seated diners, the Liath team will continue to sell street food to take away for the remainder of the year and next week they launch a collaboration with sommelier Cathryn Bell of Wine Rover, for which they will create a luxury “tasting experience” in a take-home box.
As the beleaguered restaurant industry waited this week to learn when, if and how it would exit Level 5, Grey was not alone in his decision not to reopen. All over the country restaurateurs weighed up the pros and cons. The costs associated with restocking kitchens to reopen for such a short period, the likelihood of a drop-off in trade in the traditionally quiet month of January plus the spectre of another lockdown weighed heavily for some.
“We need to open as viable businesses. Our restart costs are huge. We have nothing even remotely in-date left in our kitchens. We have to start from scratch and to do this and only trade for a couple of weeks is a huge risk,” says Gina Murphy, owner of Hugo’s restaurant on Merrion Row in Dublin.
“Last year we did over 5,000 covers between the first and the 24th of December, this year I have 700 on my books,” says Murphy, dispelling the notion that there is a crock of gold to be made by restaurateurs between now and Christmas in this most exceptional year.
On Saturday morning, Ms Murphy said, after consultation with her team, Hugos would open for the festive period. *
In Ballydehob, Co Cork, Rob Krawczyk and Elaine Fleming of Michelin-starred Restaurant Chestnut also had a tough decision to make this week. “As we approach December, we are facing into the last three weeks – nine nights – of our 2020 season before we close for our annual break due to the seasonality of our location. With this in mind, we have made the difficult decision to conclude our 2020 season early as it is not feasible for us to potentially open for dinner for such a short time.”
It’s a sentiment that is echoed by Gaz Smith, chef-proprietor of Michael’s in south Co Dublin, who announced on Wednesday that he would not be reopening for eat-in diners between now and Christmas.
“The company currently has five different viable options. We’ve got the click and collect, the Little Lockdown market in Mount Merrion and we’re opening Little Lockdown North in Sutton on Monday. Plus we’re doing street food on a Sunday and we’re getting into hampers and going to focus on doing Christmas roast boxes as well.
“To reopen would mean shelving several of these and there’s just too much uncertainty. What we’ve done has kept 30 staff in full employment for the past seven months and I’m not going to run the risk of losing that for the sake of the final three weeks of the year.”
Other restaurants that announced their decision not reopen for the remainder of the year, ahead of Friday’s update, include Allta and Spitalfields in Dublin, Aldridge Lodge in Co Wexford, Two Cooks in Co Kildare and Iyers in Cork.
Diversification, or the much-derided “pivot”, has been key to survival for many restaurants. In Tramore, Co Waterford, Peter Hogan and Jumoke Akintola had been open for just three lunch services when they were forced to temporarily close their Beach House restaurant last March. After a brief summer season that Hogan describes as “crazy busy”, they saw a fall-off in business in mid-September. “Everything just sort of went downhill very quickly,” Hogan says.
The couple responded by opening a gourmet food and wine shop. “We are really happy with how it’s going and it is something we want to maintain; we think it will be complementary to the restaurant when it reopens.”
They do not intend to offer indoor dining at the Tramore restaurant until next year. “I’m not 100 per cent confident that we can satisfy what people would want [when] booking a meal out down here with us at Christmas and creating a safe environment for people. Lots of the enquiries we are getting are for groups and everyone still wants to come on a Friday or Saturday night.”
Instead, they hope to run a Christmas market. “If restrictions allow, we will make as much use as we can of the outdoor space that we have and the space within the restaurant as somewhere for people to come down, buy their bits for Christmas, maybe have a casual hot-food offering of porchetta and mince pies, mulled wine and cider; somewhere to come and socialise out in the garden.”
However, they are hopeful that their Dublin restaurant, Fish Shop, on Benburb Street in Smithfield, will reopen for takeaway and eight dine-in customers at a time. “In Dublin, if there is any ability to trade on site we will do so.”
This will come as welcome news to diners in the capital, starved of the experience of indoor restaurant dining since the move to Level 3 restrictions in mid-September. A glance at the online reservations systems used by many Dublin restaurants suggests that the public is hungry for a return to dining out.
“I don’t have a table left for December. We take bookings from September for December and the busy days, Fridays and Saturdays, get booked up very quickly and we also have people who on their way out book the same date for the following year,” says Charles Guilbaud, manager of two-Michelin-starred Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud.
Guilbaud emphasises the importance of the pre-Christmas trading period to the restaurant. Ordinarily, he says, “those three weeks are extremely important to us for many reasons. Lunches are a huge thing in December, it’s not the main offering but at Christmastime lunch and dinner are similar and half your revenue might be coming through the alcohol side of things. People will have a drink at lunchtime at Christmas where during the year it’s not that prevalent.”
A glance this week at the website of another Michelin two-star in the city, The GreenHouse, revealed only one pre-Christmas table available in the online reservations system, for lunch on Monday December 14th. It is a similar picture at Chapter One, where the only December table available on the online reservations system is for lunch on New Year’s Eve.
But it’s not only at the very upper end of the market that demand has been strong.
At the popular neighbourhood restaurant Volpe Nera in Blackrock, chef-proprietor Barry Sun kept his online reservations open for the month of December in the hope that restrictions would be eased, and he was swamped with enquiries.
Ahead of Friday’s announcement, there wasn’t a seat available at his restaurant on any Friday, Saturday or Sunday in December. In response to demand, he made contingency plans for a move to seven-day opening. “There has been huge demand which we are very grateful for,” he says. “We have a lot of very loyal and supportive customers who we wanted to look after in December.”
This has been a particularly tough week, in a year of unprecedented challenges, for restaurateurs and their staff waiting to hear their fate. “I can’t even write a roster for next week, like every other chef I suppose,” said Ben Dineen, head chef at l’Gueuleton on Fade Street.
Like many others dealing with uncertainty in the restaurant industry, Dineen branched out into retail, opening l’Gueuleton Market, selling groceries and food-to-go, while hoping to resume serving diners in December. “It’s mostly to keep us relevant, to keep the tempo and keep the team busy and focused. We didn’t want all our hard work to dissipate with six weeks at home so they’ve all come in a few days a week, recipe testing and learning how to run a shop.”
The kitchen at the former Luna restaurant, now also owned by Declan O’Regan along with l’Gueuleton, Hogan’s Bar, Kelly’s Hotel and Drury Buildings, has been used as a prep kitchen for the shop. The Luna premises will reopen early next year after refurbishment and O’Regan also has plans for a new restaurant in the former David Marshall premises opposite l’Gueuleton. In addition, the developer aims to get The Tea Rooms on Killiney strand open for business next spring, according to Dineen.
While fallout from Covid-19 is far from over in the restaurant industry, planned new openings such as these, and others, are representative of the immense appetite the Irish public has for dining out and a whisper of optimism for an industry that badly needs it.
* An earlier version of this article said the owner of Hugos had not decided about whether to reopen. On Saturday the owner confirmed the restaurant would reopen.