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I urge you to visit a restaurant you love while you can

With the capital now in tier two, let's hail the optimism of hospitality businesses around the country – and support them where we can

Plaxy Locatelli phones me fresh from a lunch shift at Locanda Locatelli, the Michelin-starred Mayfair Italian restaurant she owns with her superstar chef husband, Giorgio. After 18 years and still very much at the top of its game, Locanda Locatelli combines (almost uniquely among London’s shinier destinations) equal parts gastro-glamour and familial warmth – the ultimate luxe “family” restaurant.

Plaxy hasn’t worked front of house for years, but with Giorgio filming MasterChef Italia (he has the equivalent of an Italian knighthood for services to gastronomy) since August, needs must. Even with a kindly landlord and after reluctantly losing 40 staff, Locanda Locatelli still needs to turn over £5,000 a day to break even and “that’s a lot of plates of pasta,” observes Plaxy. Business-wise, it’s hand-to-mouth, day-to-day.

With the three-tier lockdown system now in place and “circuit-breakers” pending, as the nights get darker and colder, so too does the industry. Yet the Hospitality Union’s “Weekly Coronavirus Surveillance Report” (which tracks Public Health England’s stats for “traceable infections outside of the home”) reveals just 3 per cent of this week’s infections can be traced to “food outlets/restaurants’ (by contrast, 35 per cent are “schools/universities”). None the less, at the time of writing, Essex has just volunteered itself for a “Tier 2” lockdown, starting on Monday. My Essex-based publican friend’s response was initially unprintable, followed by, “That’s us stuffed, then.”

I sympathise deeply. Yet how confident do people feel about eating out? Where I live, on the south coast, it’s business (with restrictions) much as usual. Local restaurants are just ticking over, while diners comfortable with QR codes, thermometers and masking-up to go the lavatory, are still turning up. For me, in my 50s, eating out locally and being home in time for a Netflix-binge (thanks to a 10pm curfew) is a no-brainer.

However, were I having all the joy squeezed out of a special occasion while in a pricey restaurant with inflexible, overly-performative displays of PPE (how big a mask is needed to uncork my wine, precisely?)… well, that’d be a lot less fun than staying in, frankly. My eldest son and his mates are, meanwhile, happy to duck into ’Spoons for three pints, one chip and a sausage impaled on a cocktail stick and call it “dinner”.

Anton Piotrowski is seeing guests making “in or out?” decisions this very week. He won Masterchef: The Professionals in 2012 and now runs Liverpool’s small-but-perfectly formed Röski with 10 full-time staff, offering a finely tuned, fixed-price tasting menu. Even during the “old normal”, this 28-cover restaurant operated with a buffer of around 10 per cent of profit as a contingency, offset by the fact that Röski was booked up six months in advance. Now, with 14 covers a night, retaining his staff and with Liverpool in tight lockdown, Piotrowski will “know by the end of the month” whether his formerly successful restaurant (just one of a handful in Liverpool with Michelin nods) has a viable future. “I have no idea if this virus is dangerous to me personally (the father-of-three has asthma and type 1 diabetes) but I do know this situation is a s---show for my business. However, I will keep on smiling, keep on cooking in the moment – but it’s going to be tough.”

The Greenwich Grind, London, where footfall has dropped Credit: Grind 

Another of my glass-half-full awards goes to 34-year-old David Abrahamovitch, who turned his dad’s old mobile phone shop into the 11-strong Grind chain of coffee-to-cocktail cafés, employing 300 people. With sites in key commuter-footfall areas near London mainline stations he watched (“heartbroken”) as the walk-in trade disappeared overnight; having furloughed everyone at the start of the original lockdown, he has a reduced staff of 150. Yet online sales – fresh beans, compostable Nespresso pods – are booming (“our roastery never shut in lockdown”). Grind may have 20 per cent of its previous footfall, “but I’m an optimist” says Abrahamovitch. “I love London and I know people will come back – I just don’t know when.”

Nor do the rest of us. Until we do, for me the idea of a life without the joy of being with people I love inside a favourite restaurant feels like no life at all. And yes, eating out remains for this diner a moral duty. Whether it’s Liverpool, London, or wherever, I urge you to visit a place you love (or want to love) while you can. Because you’ll definitely miss it when it’s gone.