Great Britain

UK restaurants weigh up alfresco dining plan over summer months - Restaurants

The narrow streets of Soho, crammed with a higgledy-piggledy cocktail of restaurants, cafes and bars, are not designed for physical distancing. The London entertainment district, usually packed with revellers, stands almost silent, under the shadow of coronavirus, with many businesses boarded up.

But in July, when hospitality businesses are expected to be allowed to reopen their doors, the area could be transformed into a giant European-style outdoor cafe under plans put forward by a local landlord to help businesses spring back to life while maintaining the required two-metre space between customers.

“I think a third of the businesses will not open their doors again unless they get some help,” said John James, the managing director of Soho Estates, who has cooked up a plan to pedestrianise a small web of streets and Soho Square. “If we don’t take action, we’ll see the heart of the West End disappear.”

James is asking Westminster council to approve temporary pedestrianisation, until the end of September, with a license extension to allow businesses to put appropriately spaced tables out on the street in front of their premises and serve until 11pm. Essential traffic, such as rubbish collection and deliveries, would be restricted to specific times of day. 

“It’s a simple solution,” James said. “A temporary amendment for a ‘summer festival’. What happens inside the street would be up to the individuals to decide. But it would be a great assistance and ensure Soho’s open again. Right now, it’s a ghost town, where livelihoods are under threat.” 

The Soho plan is one of many similar ideas under development in cities and towns around the country. The hope is that alfresco street dining can help extend the number of tables that each restaurant, bar or cafe can operate – and potentially make the difference between survival and closure.

Alan Lorrimer, founder of London live music venue Piano Works, has coralled dozens of hospitality businesses, including the owners of restaurants Pont de La Tour, Thai Square and the firm behind Revolution bars, to back his UK Grand Outdoor Cafe campaign. They are calling on the government to temporarily ease regulations to allow hospitality operators to use open spaces and public squares alongside their venues to serve food and drink.

The UK is taking inspiration form Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius, which has announced plans to turn the city into a vast open-air cafe and San Francisco, where restaurants are being encouraged to take over parking bays, pavements and streets.

In Liverpool, the mayor, Joe Anderson, is putting up £450,000 to help redesign the city’s outdoor spaces, with European-style covered outdoor seating for bars and restaurants. Plans are still being finalised but Bold Street and Castle Street in the city centre will be among those semi-pedestrianised to help welcome outdoor diners.

Anderson said: “We are bringing forward our plans for cycling and pedestrianisation and trying to reimagine the city. This is an opportunity to do something bold and help businesses comply with social distancing.

“It’s often said that it’s the weather that determines that we don’t go al fresco but I think we’ve got to look at things now in the summer, and to October and beyond.”

In London it’s not just Soho considering expanding outdoor dining. The Southbank is understood to be considering opening more space beside the Thames while private landlords, such as Argent, the developer of Kings Cross’s Granary Square and Coal Drops Yard, are also working on plans to place more tables outside.

In Greater Manchester, parts of the Northern Quarter and Deansgate have been pedestrianised with the hope of making space for outdoor dining and drinking, and further plans are being considered.

Sacha Lord, night-time economy advisor to the greater Manchester mayor, Andy Burnham, said with 2 metre distancing, 70% of hospitality businesses said they could go bust. He describes outdoor dining as a “very, very good idea” to help businesses survive.

But Lord says regulations governing the use of outdoor space will have to be loosened to make it easier for local authorities and operators to make changes. Applying for a licence for outdoor tables and chairs can take at least a month and much longer if there is any objection. “It needs government support,” Lord said.

The housing and local government minister, Robert Jenrick, has said he is considering granting “blanket” permission for restaurants, pubs, cafes and bars to use pedestrianised streets for outdoor dining.

But even with Jenrick’s backing the plan may face another major hurdle.

“Restaurants need every bit of help and whatever we can do to make the business more viable is welcome,” said James Hart, co-owner of Quo Vadis and Barrafina on Soho’s Dean Street. “Of course, we’ll probably get it signed off and it will rain for the rest of the summer.”

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