Wednesday 24 February 2021 1:53 pm

Soho prepares to party, with al fresco dining back on the menu

Hopes for a restaurant renaissance over the coming months were given a boost today when Westminster City Council announced its hugely successful – some have argued altogether too successful – al fresco dining scheme will return on 12 April.

During the two “false openings” last summer and autumn, Soho became a Mecca for millions of bored Londoners taking advantage of the continental-style street dining that filled the pedestrianised roads between Soho Square and Old Compton Street.

Westminster City Council says 560 premises were issued with temporary pavement licences, with a total of 60 streets involved in the scheme. The same areas will be included in the new scheme, which is expected to continue throughout the summer. 

“The temporary measures were… a lifeline to the local economy, bringing much needed confidence and footfall back to Westminster,” said a Council spokesman. “The council will do everything it can to support businesses to re-open safely in the coming weeks. 

“Given the need to keep access for emergency vehicles open and to accommodate residents and other businesses, we are unlikely to be able to have additional road closures or new pavement extensions.”

Westminster City Council attracted controversy over its pavement dining scheme, proposing a charge of £7 per square metre per day, which the operator of Soho staple Quo Vadis said would have meant a bill of up to £100,000 a year. Small coffee shop and deli ScandiKitchen, meanwhile, said it would be hit with a bill of £2,000 a month for a space that can only house six people.

Leadenhall market could also see a boom when al fresco dining is allowed again
Leadenhall market could also see a boom when al fresco dining is allowed again

The idea to charge businesses to use street space once the initial scheme had ended was criticised by London Mayor Sadiq Khan and Westminster City Council quickly reversed its decision. The City of London offered pavement space to hospitality businesses free of charge.

In a potential boost to London’s hospitality sector, Westminster says it is now considering the possibility of “longer-term al fresco provision”.

Cllr Rachael Robathan, Leader of Westminster City Council, said: “Hospitality is a major employer in Westminster supporting around 80,000 jobs and a big part of the reason people visit the West End. But with shutters down and doors barred, this sector has been amongst the hardest hit during lockdown.   

“We have more pubs, restaurants and bars than any other local authority area – around 3,700 – and we want to see them welcoming back customers in a safe way. The majority of our residents have supported these schemes in the past and we hope they will understand the need to continue the temporary measures until the end of September.”

The news comes as restaurateurs across London are tentatively allowing themselves to look forward to what may be a bumper few months as pent-up demand is realised. 

“There will be an outpouring of love for restaurants and strong demand, regardless of weather,” says Martin Williams, owner of M Restaurants. “People have missed the dining experience, hospitality and socialising immeasurably.”

“I have no doubt that the industry will thrive post lockdown,” says Sanjay Dwivedi, culinary ambassador at COYA. “Socialising is an important part of many people’s lives and the hospitality industry plays host to a lot of it.”

Adam White, Founder, Riding House Café, is also expecting high demand over the coming weeks. “By May I have little doubt that the nation will be gagging to get out again,” he says. “To survive the last year most of us really needed to learn to cook if they couldn’t already.

“But mixing with your friends in vibrant surroundings is a big part of hospitality, and with the sun coming out it will really lift our spirits after a difficult lockdown. There will no doubt be a boom, my main concern is how long it continues.”