It’s a balmy Tuesday lunchtime as you stroll down a leafy promenade, stopping outside a heaving cafe, where a besuited garçon beckons you to a kerbside table. You peruse the set menu, which will set you back £10 for three courses. It’s the middle of August, but you’re not on a Mediterranean holiday – you’re five minutes from home.
Such is the surprising reality of our 'new normal'. And it's all (or mainly) thanks to the Eat Out to Help Out (EOTHO) scheme, which is fast turning Britain's dining logic on its head. The scheme offers customers 50 per cent off food and non-alcoholic drink (up to £10 per person) on Mondays-Wednesdays – traditionally the quiet days in the restaurant industry. In its first week alone, the Treasury says it generated 10.5 million meals; many of which surely wouldn't have been eaten before the state subsidy kicked in.
Aside from our newfound readiness to eat out early in the week, industry experts are noticing that EOTHO is changing the time of day when we seek a professionally cooked meal. This month has witnessed the perfect storm for weekday lunchtime trade: good weather, summer holidays, fewer people travelling, much less commuting and, perhaps above all, a significant discount. Maybe we’re (finally) becoming a little more like France or Spain, where lunch is sacred, often taken at leisure in the form of affordable set menus in small bistros. Or maybe we just love a bargain.
In Blackheath, a southeast London suburb, the Avocado Garden, an all-day cafe-restaurant, is packed for lunch. Owner Jay Mistry says the sheer business has taken her by storm. “It’s going really well with people taking advantage of the fact there’s an offer on,” Mistry explains. In July the restaurant was “busy, but not manic”; now it’s heaving for lunch, though Mistry notes weekends have tailed off a touch. She believes the influx may be explained by the significant population of commuters now entrenched in the area, as well as the hot weather and school holidays.
In Chiswick, the Urban Pantry had its best Tuesday in terms of turnover and covers since opening in 2015. The next day it broke the record again. Owner Kate Frobisher reports that she's now turning people away for weekday lunch, which is almost unheralded. Frobisher thinks the influx is “a mixture of summer holidays and office workers” who no longer travel into central London: "[In lockdown], people realised there are great places around them, owned by people who genuinely care about what they’re serving.”
I've heard a similar story from numerous eateries, all around the country. And it seems in some instances the new demand for weekday lunches is spreading out into non-EOTHO days too.
At Thackeray’s in Tunbridge Wells, lunchtime service is fully booked every day, regardless of whether it’s a day covered by the scheme or not. “Perhaps people have a little more time to spend on lunch now they aren’t commuting and rushing about to get to meetings,” says executive head chef Richard Phillips. “In a way you can fit more into your days without all the previous travelling and you can spend more time over a meal with a friend.”
Meanwhile, in Birmingham, lunch is “absolutely thriving,” says local food blogger Simon Carlo, of the Meat And One Veg blog. “One hour wait to get into Dishoom today, whilst my local pub, The Plough in Harborne, has no tables available. Tuesday lunchtimes are the new Friday evenings. Wednesday is the new Saturday.”
The question is, will this change become permanent? Will the confident prediction that lockdown has extinguished Britain’s love affair with sandwiches ring true? Will we still be acting all sophisticated and continental once Rishi Sunak's hand-outs end?
“I would hope so,” says Frobisher. “A problem with Londoners is everything is such a rush, no one’s got enough time. Lockdown slowed everything down a bit. Hopefully the sandwich-at-desk culture will turn around, though things could slip back to normal.”
Carlo is more pessimistic: “I hope it kickstarts a lunch culture, but personally I can’t see it. Our city centre is so quiet because the offices are still empty and will likely be that way until the end of the year. It’s a false economy with so many people able to meet up at lunch because they are still furloughed.”
And that's not to mention the weather. August so far has been Costa del Sol scorching – perfect for dining out – but thunderstorms are around the corner. Will we be just as likely to sit down for our Menu del Dia at 1pm when we have to brave the rain to get there? Will the £10 discount offer incentive enough for the inner bargain hunters in us all?
Ultimately, it's too early to tell, but lockdown may well convince many of an alternative to wolfed-down BLTs. If trade spikes on traditionally quiet days, without taking away from weekends, it could well be a saving grace for many British restaurants.