Trying to apply a descriptor to 2020 is like running a restaurant in 2020: almost impossible. Throughout the year, the novel coronavirus pandemic has — sometimes gradually, sometimes seismically — changed what it means to operate a restaurant, pub, cafe or bar; what it means to visit those establishments, and what it means to work in them. Charting those changes has been the chief duty of Eater London this year, but throughout, every other facet of the restaurant and food ecosystem of the city has continued, itself irrevocably changed. Here are the biggest food and restaurant stories of a singular year, in chronological order.
Updated afresh in January, before its restaurants knew what was coming, this 90-strong guide to the restaurants diners return to time and again across the city remains a stake in the ground for what is great and essential about eating in London.
The start of a story that ran through to June and became a signal case for the inequalities exacerbated by the novel coronavirus pandemic. After petitioning against Hondo Enterprises’ eviction, garnering widespread community support, and scrutinising the landlord’s plans, the Save Nour campaign ensured that the vital African and Caribbean food hub remained tied to the community it served. On a metropolitan level, the story showed how the tension between developers and the places they target remains tied to questions of gentrification, representation, and power.
When Michelle Salazar de la Rocha and Sam Napier opened a small homage to a Mexican restaurant from the 1970s, selling grilled chicken atop gossamer flour tortillas, they probably didn’t expect to be one of the breakout hits of the year. But through producing tortilla packs; rebranding to Sonora and swapping chicken for beef; running out of tortilla packs; producing even more tortilla packs; running out of tacos every weekend; and taking a well-earned break at the end of the year, that’s exactly what Pollo Feliz became.
Spare a thought for the only tyre manufacturer that arbitrates restaurants. Its signature categories — worth a trip, worth a very special journey — sit abandoned in a world where travel is near-curtailed; it cannot go into restaurants to rate them; it wanted everyone to come and say, in person, “Michelin rocks, hey!” this year, for the first time. And now it can’t. But, it’s still going to give out stars, so ¯_(ツ)_/¯
The pandemic irrevocably changed the entire city, but it hit Chinatown’s restaurants first and hardest, with baseless, Sinophobic fears allied to a steep downturn in trade as early as the end of February.
A photo essay documenting the weekend of 21 March — the day after the government first ordered restaurants to close.
Restaurants closing broke a fragile supply chain, with fishing boats, butchers, farms, greengrocers, cheesemongers, wineries, brewers, and more left without a vital supply line. So, many of them looked to people’s homes — and still do, nine months on.
Ruby Tandoh’s essay on the sensory pleasures of food as a balm against uncertainty and torrid news resonated with people’s personal experiences of the year.
Before the meal kits, the pivots, and the nationwide shops, many London chefs found themselves out of work. One response was to cook for the NHS — with Quality Wines’ Nick Bramham and Cafe Deco’s Anna Tobias at the helm.
Vaughn Tan’s explanation of how restaurants would face unprecedented uncertainty — and have to adopt a new mindset to navigate it — begins, “Any restaurant that wants to have a chance of surviving through coronavirus will have to completely reconsider what being a restaurant means.” Through pivots, restrictions, and limitations, this has held true. Perhaps what is most telling of all is that the length of time they will have to do that has proven longer than even Tan predicted.
There’s been a lot of talk centred on the restaurant industry in 2020, but little on what and whom that term encompasses. Jonathan Nunn’s tribute to the restaurants of the Old Kent Road is also an interrogation of who that term leaves out, and whether or not it’s an adequate framework in which to build the future of dining out in London.
Published in June, this piece is one of the most revisited, because rent is the biggest concern for nearly all restaurants in the city. With the government refusing to act decisively on the bargain between tenant and landlord, the fate of many businesses is entirely in the hands of their property’s owner. That’s not going to change until at least March 2021, when eviction protections expire, and no-one knows what — if anything — will replace them.
A lot of chains closed a lot of restaurants in 2020, and many of them attributed it to the pandemic. But Pizza Express, like no other chain, continues to hold a curious sway over Britain’s dining psyche, and thus became a signal for everything COVID-19 changed about casual dining; where people ate; how often; and what they wanted to eat. It also became a signal for the fact that many of those closures weren’t about the pandemic at all, but about private equity’s deleterious effect on restaurant brands, and how over-expanded bubbles just needed a pin to burst them.
The biggest story of the summer was ‘Eat Out to Help Out,’ the dining discount scheme that chancellor Rishi Sunak devised to get people into restaurants. In terms of the numbers, 100 million meals that restaurants got full price for and diners got discounted, he deemed it a success. But months later, the scheme has now become a byword for measures that exacerbated the pandemic, whose hundreds of millions spent might have better served restaurants told to close, with proportionate financial support.
Service please! From cookbooks and merch to delivery guides and streaming recommendations, all the guides people needed to eat, drink, read, and watch well from home.
The closest thing to normalcy that 2020 offered.
Following on from Jonathan Nunn’s extensive coverage in 2019, the closure of Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre is another blow to the capital’s figuring of restaurants as community spaces, overwritten by the priorities of developers. Many of its outstanding operations remain close by, but many are gone for good.
Meal kits of all stripes proved an essential revenue stream for some restaurants in 2020, from Michelin-starred assembly guides to frying pan pizzas. But they faced a key challenge: trying to offer a consistent, repeatable source of custom — like restaurants do — with a product largely governed by its novelty and one-off intrigue.
Helen Sulis Bowie’s powerful testimony on the impact of Jamie Oliver’s School Dinners and its relation to Marcus Rashford’s campaigning on child food poverty crystallises how attitudes towards school meals, food banks, and charity in this country are guided by the government of the day.
A top example of how abstract policy making around the novel coronavirus pandemic turned into an unenforceable, ontological nightmare for restaurants… And a story about Scotch eggs.
Having closed, reopened in summer, closed again for lockdown 2.0, and reopened again in December under a cloud of uncertainty, the city’s restaurants were shut down for good by tier 3, and then tier 4 coronavirus restrictions in the middle of December. In a series of Q&As, this the last of the year, restaurateurs and chefs across the capital expressed hope, dismay, anger, fear, and most of all uncertainty. None of them know what 2021 will bring, other than more of that.
Summing this up is an impossible task, so here are 303 stories — and counting — that try.