Newcastle took another giant step towards normality on Monday as bars and restaurants opened their indoor areas for the first time this year.
National figures showed damp conditions took the edge off the reopenings, with footfall across UK high streets sagging despite the latest easing of lockdown restrictions.
Early figures from research specialists Springboard have shown that high street footfall fell by 1.6% by 5pm on Monday, against the same period a week ago, as poor weather kept many people at home.
But there was a healthy buzz inside the city centre ’s hospitality venues, with customers enjoying their first indoor meals and pints for more than five months.
Karl Richardson, general manager at Central Oven & Shaker, said the venue was “70-80% busier than what we would normally expect on a Monday [pre-pandemic].”
He said the bar and restaurant was fully booked with 660 people on Saturday.
Karl added: “Next week is exactly the same, and the same the week after.
“I think it’s going to be like that until Christmas - the hospitality trade’s taken a massive hit over the past eight months, but now there’s an opportunity.”
It was a similar picture at Market Lane bar Horticulture, where general manager Sam Brown said virtually every table was booked for Friday and Saturday.
Danielle Notley, general manager at Pleased to Meet You, said: “It’s a bit like Christmas - it felt like that last night getting it all ready.”
Carl Christer, senior general manager at Crafted Projects, which owns the bar, added: “This is a venue people know and love so it’s great to have the doors open and let people back inside. This is what we live and breathe.”
While many venues have had a month of outdoor trade after opening beer gardens and pavement cafes, Jesmond pub The Punch Bowl was reopening for the first time since last year.
Manager Alex Kurc said: “We didn’t open our outdoor area, so this is massive. We decided not to do bookings because we wanted people to stay as long as they want and feel comfortable.
“It’s pretty full at the moment, this is about standard for a busy Monday night. We’ve got a few regulars in and everyone’s pleased to be back.”
He added “It’s nice to have people back in the pub. There’s a lot of apprehension, but hopefully we’ll stay open this time, and the vaccine rollout will make a big difference.”
The city centre streets looked fairly quiet throughout the evening, but among the revellers braving the weather were Hannah Gibson and her nephew Dale Cole.
The pair were dressed to mark all the celebrations they have missed during the pandemic - with Christmas jumpers, birthday badges, Easter bunny ears and Pride flags.
Dale said: “I’d said that when the bars reopen I was going to celebrate everything I’ve missed this past year.”
Hannah and Dale had started the festivities in Ashington at 11am before getting the bus into Newcastle.
Enjoying a drink together in Central Oven & Shaker were friends Estelle Tate, Kieran Carr and Jess Rice.
Estelle said: “It’s better than being sat out in the cold. It makes it so much better being able to get dressed up -as a girl you want to wear nice clothes and you can’t if you’re sat outside all night.”
Kieran added: “It’s a good feeling - it’s a step towards normality.”
Another customer, David Frankish, said: “It’s good to feel back out in the world and get back to a bit of normality.”
Earlier that day, Northumberland venue Slaley Hall was one of the many hotels to reopen its rooms and indoor dining.
General manager Andrew Fox, said: “We’re at 80% occupancy for the rest of the month, and that goes up to 90% for the next three months.
“Weddings have doubled on previous years because there are a lot of people who couldn’t get married last year.
“People want a break, and they deserve a break, especially with less opportunity to go abroad.”
It came as cinemas, museums and other leisure venues also welcomed customers in again.