Hospitality businesses in England were able to reopen outdoor spaces today for the first time in months and outbreaks of rain, sleet and snow in some areas didn't dampen operators or their guests' resolve to enjoy their new freedoms.
Ellenborough Park in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, opened 16 self-contained rooms today and an extensive outdoor dining offer including a Tattinger Horsebox bar and the Cedar Pavilion pop-up tent, with five bespoke dining carriages being installed this week.
"You couldn't write it, the first day of outside dining we get snow in April!" said general manager Marwan Hemchaoui. However, he said the wintery conditions didn't affect bookings with more than 40 booked for lunch and dinner today, and about 100 for lunch on Saturday, along with an additional 30 for afternoon tea.
"We called to reconfirm the bookings and I think people are just relieved, they just want to get on with it and get out," said Hemchaoui. "We're so excited for a very busy summer."
The pub garden of Swan Inn in Swinbrook, Oxfordshire, was covered in snow this morning; landlord Steve Cook said it highlighted the "insanity" of the decision to only allow outdoor opening.
"The outside tables and chairs were drenched. Had it not warmed up it would have been impossible for staff to work outside," Cook told The Caterer.
"We had a few early cancellations, but it has turned into a beautiful day and we're pressing on. It could have been a disaster financially. We spent £15,000 on a new awning which is still on the ferry and won't be here for 10 days. We also spent thousands on food and getting the menu ready. We've got over 1,000 bookings this week, so we need the weather to hold."
Meanwhile, breakfast service at Riding House Café in London's Fitzrovia was full by 10am, with quite a few guests popping Champagne corks, according to founder Adam White. "It's been a great atmosphere," he told The Caterer.
Sister site Rail House Café in Victoria (pictured), which has 139 outdoor covers, opened for lunch and both sites are fully booked for the next two weeks.
White added: "Westminster City Council has been really supportive, which has made a great difference. We've got a lot more seats outside. They've given us the licence to use the parking bays again and extended our outdoor area. They're saying yes wherever possible, which is great. We have enough seats outside to have a decent restaurant atmosphere."
Angus McKean, licensee at the Red Lion in Barnes, London, said: "I did expect the worst with the weather but we've got the heaters out and guests have got blankets on, I think people are just happy to be out.
"Everyone has stuck with their bookings and we've had a lot of walk-ins too and are fully booked tonight which is unusual for a Monday. It's been an emotional day. Catering is so all consuming when you're open and it's been all or nothing in lockdown, but it feels great to be back."
Richard Gladwin reopened Sussex and Nutbourne restaurants in London today and said both were "super busy" and people were "desperate to get out and everyone is in a good mood". Richard Green, owner of 28°-50° Wine Bar & Kitchen in Covent Garden added that business was "wonderfully busy".
"The staff were excited to be back and straight back into a busy lunch shift, saying it feels like only yesterday that they closed! The guests are very excited and relaxed, enjoying shopping in Covent Garden and a glass of Champagne with lunch," he added.
Meanwhile, the sun was out in York for Galtres Lodge hotel, which was able to open its ‘secret garden' to host a small wedding and is fully booked this evening, while its alfresco pavement space opened for walk-ins.
"We only have a limited number of outside tables, meaning that no-shows were a huge concern for us," said owner Rebecca Hill. "We decided to take a £10 per table deposit to secure a booking, and this is then taken off the bill at the end of the meal. This doesn't seem to have put people off booking and we have not had any no-shows today so it seems to be working!"
She added: "The general feeling amongst guests has been great, everyone wants to have a good time so they're super happy and relaxed. [And] the team is really excited to be back at work; we are a very small workforce so we know each other well and have missed one another's company."
The sun was also shining on Birmingham's Vietnamese Street Kitchen, which finally opened outdoors today having originally been due to open in November. Owner Oliver Ngo said people were queuing outside his restaurant half an hour before it opened, on which tables were "full immediately" and the venue is booked up until next Monday.
But the restaurant can still only utilise 40 outside covers of its 140 total. Ngo said: "If I could open the whole restaurant it would help big time. Staff are still part-time rather than full-time, I'm still doing probably a quarter of the covers that I can normally do, but everything's moving along. I can't complain. I see the light at the end of the tunnel this time."
However, many operators are yet to reopen with just two in every five licensed premises estimated to have had space to open outdoors today. Outdoor hospitality in Scotland and Wales are hoped to reopen on 26 April, while businesses in Northern Ireland are still yet to receive an indicative reopening date.
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