A sense of normality was creeping back to the streets of Soho in central London on Monday evening, as diners headed back to restaurants to take advantage of the first day of the government’s “eat out to help out” scheme.
The warm weather made it the ideal climate for outdoor – and physically distanced – dining, and although there were still empty tables, plenty of people were out and keen to bag themselves a bargain.
“This is the first time we’ve been out for a proper evening meal since lockdown,” said Mark Coia who was enjoying a spread of tapas at Dehesa with his partner Gillian.
Under the scheme – announced by the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, last month – diners get 50% off food and non-alcoholic drinks when dining in, up to a maximum discount of £10 per customer.
“I came up with a brilliant idea, to go to a restaurant and get 50% off a starter, then move to another restaurant for the main meal and another for dessert, which would get you a £60 discount between two people in total,” said Coia.
But like many of diners, his priority isnot just getting a discount for himself, but supporting local businesses that were hit hard during the nationwide shutdown. “We wanted to pick somewhere we hadn’t been before because of the scheme. It feels like things are a lot more back to normal now and it’s nice to see Soho opening back up,” he said.
The 32-year-old business director works in Soho but, like many office workers around the country, is still working from home and could be until 2021, he said.
“You can see how hard Soho has been hit, there’s still so many closed restaurants and bars because although they’re allowed people back now, offices aren’t asking workers to come in, so without people being asked to come out it’s going to be difficult. So I think it’s a great scheme in that respect.”
Around the corner, in the usually packed Kingly Court, 26-year-old medics Heta and Bairabi were enjoying a long-awaited meal from Pizza Pilgrims, one of their favourite eateries in the city.
“It’s really quiet still, even the tube stations are much quieter,” said Heta. “I think some people are still scared about coming out.”
Like many, they said they would have come out for dinner regardless of the new discount scheme, but it was an added bonus that might coax a few more people back out.
Across in Covent Garden, the cobbled streets were also much quieter than pre-lockdown times, with one pub displaying a sign reading: “Wanted: Customers.”
Finn Hadley, 25 and his partner Beth, 20 both work in the hospitality industry at home in Surrey, so they were particular pleased to see tables being filled as a result of the scheme, even if things were quieter than normal.
“We’re starting to feel a lot more comfortable going to places, and getting used to the social distancing measures in place. We prefer to sit outside so we chose to do that tonight,” said Hadley, who was at the Covent Garden branch of Be at One.
“I think it will help the industry and get customers coming back, but people are still going to be cautious and if they’re not comfortable going out, they won’t come.”