The Alfresco Bonanza

Will we see these scenes again in London this summer?

As the sun blazed down outside the Café Hegeraad in the Jordaan district of Amsterdam, my wife led me straight past the crowds drinking on the market square and around a spare pair of seats to instead sit at a rickety table in the completely empty dark-wood interior of the compact front bar.

Although the barman was rather taken aback to see people actually choosing to sit inside rather than in the warming sun, my wife was more than aware of my penchant for sitting in low-lit bars soaking up both the history of the buildings as well as the local beers.

However, from 12 April, I’m going to be more than happy to discard my vampire-like habit (carefully developed over a drinking lifetime) and join everybody else outside. I’ll be more than happy taking advantage of the opportunity to finally return to pubs and restaurants – albeit alfresco-only until 17 May when I can then dust down my red-lined black cape again. 

There is no escaping the fact many businesses are massively constrained by this ruling. The British Beer & Pub Association predicts as many as three in five pubs are unlikely to open in April because they lack a garden or do not believe they will be able to trade profitably under such restrictions. The extensions to the business rates holiday, VAT cut, and furlough as well as £400m of grants for pubs announced in the budget will help for sure, but the uncertainty for so many businesses remains incredibly worrying.

What will make life easier for many operators in April and make it possible for them to reopen – even if they have zero outside space – is the decision by councils to again close certain streets to traffic and enable the space to be converted for outdoor dining and drinking. This was a major feature in London when 60 roads were closed between July and October and laid out with tables reminiscent of a street party. The alfresco bonanza will return again – running from April through to the end of September. 

The streets of Soho in 2020

More than 560 Westminster premises were previously issued with pavement licences to allow them to place seating outside their venues. There will, no doubt, be just as many businesses taking part this time – from the 3,700 registered in the local authority area – because there is an incredible level of pent-up demand from people wanting to venture back out again as evidenced by the avalanche of bookings many restaurants and pubs have received since opening up their booking lines.

Places in London such as Soho – with its many restaurants and bars – are prime locations for street closures but, like last summer, there will no doubt be other similar schemes introduced around the country in order to breathe life into what have become ghost towns rather than bustling city centres over recent months.

There will also be lots of examples of greater use of outdoor space that is all too often shamefully lacking in a country renowned for its gardening capability. Marquees constructed in pub gardens will again be a frequent feature no doubt. Others will look to implement more long-lasting structures that will serve them well into the future. This will sit well with the overall trend of people seated outside all year round that was initially fuelled by the smoking ban, and has since been adopted beyond smokers through improved seating and widespread use of outdoor heaters as well as milder winters courtesy of global warming. 

The Jolly Cricketers freehouse in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, is one such business investing in its garden space through the construction of an outdoor kitchen that will help it boost cover numbers. Such a move was considered pre-covid-19 but such was the increase in alfresco dining this summer, combined with the success of its new external bar, management felt confident committing to the permanent supplementary kitchen.

Such confidence does thankfully highlight that there is finally light at the end of the tunnel for pubs and restaurants after a torrid period. Although I’m still more likely to enjoy my beer in the dimly lit surroundings of the inside of a pub like Café Hegeraad than in a bright sunlit garden.

Glynn Davis, editor of Retail Insider 

This piece was originally published on Propel Info where Glynn Davis writes a regular Friday opinion piece. Beer Insider would like to thank Propel for allowing the reproduction of this column.