By Andrew Stephen, CEO, the SRA

It began where it all started.

The Eagle in Farringdon has for decades been a pilot light for how pubs can do great food. Their approach: ingredients without compromise at small margins. To make it work, they’ve always huddled you in on little wooden chairs amassed around small tables tessellating tightly in the small pub front. As a pub they have long believed that you shouldn’t have to book a table; and instead invite you to cluster at the bar, or outside on the narrow pavement to spot one turning over.

We arrived 28 minutes after they’d opened and took the one remaining empty table. The huddle was gone. It felt positively roomy, with less than half the usual number of places to perch.

They’re still not taking bookings, and they have placed some discreet signs below the bar asking you to maintain social distance. The menu was shorter but still contained the famous biff-ana marinated rump steak sandwich that’s been there since the beginning. Only one real ale on tap. Some staff wore masks. The convivial yet weary owner confided that, in order to get support from the landlord, they’ve had to extend the lease by another five years.  He seemed exhausted by the idea, but I guess it’s good news for the locals.

Next on for a haircut at Castiels in Holborn. The family run place has been going for 40 years, and Anthony owns the building and now lives above the shop. They’ve survived because they own the building. He is excited about getting back to work, but sad that his favourite Italian (Bella Italia) is no more. I left a tip and told him to checkout Trullo in Islington then let me know if he still missed it.

Then into Soho. Now fully pedestrianised and bars and restaurants spill out onto the streets. A beautiful tragedy of the commons in three acts:

  1. The Good
  2. The Shut
  3. The Ugly

The Good were attentive, spacious, safe. You needed to pre-book and they took your temperature at the door. Some front of house staff wore masks, covers had been spread out and new outdoor seating in the streets made for a relaxed and novel experience.

As the night wore on, the spacious streetscape was replaced by a mass of people pushing into the bars least willing and able to limit their numbers. There was a carnival atmosphere and those not able to get in anywhere were drinking merrily on the street. Still late into the evening many venues were getting it right, providing fantastic service and controlling capacity with a smile. The ever-excellent Swift on Old Compton Street was an example to all.

The shut were many. How many will return we don’t yet know. Some businesses like Gauthier Soho plan to wait it out a little longer and return in September. They expect, or is it hope, to then avoid some of the difficult decisions around staff, and customer experience.

Given the huge hype around Super Saturday and the pent-up sense of anticipation felt by the hordes of people denied the chance to break bread or share pints together for 104 days, it was hardly surprising that the distancing rules, even only one metre, fell by the wayside as darkness fell.

It was too much to expect staff, many of them on minimum wage and fresh back from 14 weeks on furlough to lay down the law.

By late evening, the streetscape became indistinguishable from a festival. The combined effect of 200+ venues with a late licence and no bars on drinking in the street, created an amorphous mass of celebration on the streets of Soho. Later still, popping into a larger operator I was confronted with five members of staff huddled around one PDQ/screen and walked past abandoned temperature testing kit. Think King Canute and the tide…

Pictures of the streets have been shared widely since Saturday and are something of a Rorschach test. Some will see a petri dish and a predictor of a second wave, others will say that we’ve been told it’s safe outside, and the crowds as a sign of a lifeline for hospitality and the night-time economy.

After one Saturday sandwiched between weeks full of daily announcements of job losses in the thousands, it is easy to see why the COVID-secure guidelines for hospitality give so much space and room for operators to make their own decisions.

So why is this a tragedy of the commons?

The limiting of capacity inside the venues created the packed scenes outside.

There was a clear disparity between how venues were implementing the guidance, and it will be even harder for those sacrificing trade to continue to do so in full view of competitors doing it differently.

The real tragedy will come should the cumulative self-regulation be insufficient to head off a second lockdown in our cities and towns.

We can all affect this, both as operators and food citizens.

Remember that half of the population is sat at home and waiting for more reassurance before going out to eat and drink. They want their favourite pubs and restaurants to communicate to them and demonstrate that they’re adhering to the government guidance. Long term, that’s the smart play.

We as diners and drinkers have a role to play too. We must be confident enough to do our research and ask the question, and to support bars and restaurants that are making difficult sacrifices with our custom. Like so many of the social and environmental challenges we face; the answer is in our choices and the power of our appetites.