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Sun 20th Jun 2021 - Weekend leisure stories and restaurant reviews
McDonald’s to hire 20,000 workers in big UK expansion: McDonald’s has unveiled plans to hire 20,000 more workers and open up to 150 high street restaurants in the UK and Ireland as it shrugs off fears over a long-term slump in city centre footfall after covid. The fast-food chain is set to open 50 new outlets in 2021 and another 100 over the following two years according to Paul Pomroy, its UK chief executive. He said: “The great British high street is going to continue into the future.” McDonald’s race to expand comes amid widespread doubt over the future of urban areas, with many workers saying they are not keen to return to offices full time and high streets already struggling due to the rise of the internet. McDonald’s has a big footprint in traditionally high traffic areas such as train stations and shopping hubs, but there are questions over how busy these will be when covid restrictions are lifted. Mr Pomroy said that the company is now looking at more regional locations. He said: “People are using their local high streets in a different way, because they’re working from home at the moment, and I think local high streets will continue to be part of the fabric of the UK. It’s up to us to make sure there are reasons for people to visit.” Mr Pomroy admitted it is “getting harder and harder to recruit”. He said: “Attracting the talent will be critical.” McDonald’s has also sought to move past criticism over the culture within its restaurants, in particular allegations of harassment and bullying. McDonald’s in April said all its 2m staff would have to take anti-harassment training. Mr Pomroy said: “We’ve always taken action. We’ve got an amazing track record of doing the right thing. But there are moments in anyone’s life where something happens that lets an individual down and that’s not right.” A significant proportion of McDonald’s products are sourced in Ireland and the company buys around 40,000 tonnes of Irish beef every year. Its cheese is also Irish. Mr Pomroy said there had been no impact from ongoing customs issues between the UK and Brussels over the Irish Sea. He said he was hopeful a deal to allow for frictionless trade would be struck, adding: “I still believe that eventually common sense will prevail. Of course you need paperwork, of course you need red tape, but making that as easy as possible for retailers to navigate, making it as frictionless as possible is what we all want.” (Sunday Telegraph)

Landlords threaten to sue after eviction ban extended: Commercial property owners are exploring legal action against the government after ministers extended the moratorium on evictions until March, leaving £6 billion of rent arrears unpaid. Last week, Robert Jenrick, the communities secretary, said that binding arbitration would be put in place if landlords and tenants could not come to an agreement over unpaid rent. Melanie Leech, chief executive of the British Property Federation (BPF), said: “How can it possibly be proportionate or a good use of taxpayers’ money to create a whole new scheme to intervene in contract law when you have the courts there to do that?” She said agreements had been reached on more than three quarters of contracts. The BPF resolved to explore all legal options after a call with about 60 landlords on Thursday. Property owners are unhappy the government has not tailored the moratorium to firms hardest hit by the pandemic. Landlords are also angry that well-funded retailers, such as Boots, JD Sports and Sports Direct, have refused to pay rent during the moratorium, which will have been in place for two years. (Sunday Times)

Who will win the great WFH tug of war?: On Friday, Deloitte was the latest to give its 20,000 employees the choice of when and where they work. A recent staff survey revealed that 81% anticipated working from a Deloitte office for up to two days a week in the future. Ian Stewart, Deloitte’s chief economist, said WFH had not stalled the economic recovery so far: “It’s quite remarkable that we’re seeing quite high levels of economic activity, with over a third of the workforce still being outside the office. Could we find that, actually, it is possible to sustain quite high levels of home-working with quite high levels of employment and GDP growth?” The authors of the Zoomshock report calculated that if 50% of commuters shift to working from home for two days a week, it could lead to a 20% loss of demand for coffee shops and bars in city centres that used to benefit from high footfall. Pret A Manger illustrates the situation. Its stores in the City have not experienced any rise in footfall since late last month, when restrictions eased, and continue to trade at just over half their pre-pandemic levels. Those in outer London – Ealing in the west and Dalston in the east – are ahead of pre-covid levels, as are those in York and Leeds. One of the first City employers to adopt a strategy not to require workers to return to the office five days a week was FTSE 100 fund manager Schroders. During last week, 1,290 of its 2,500 staff attended its headquarters, opened by the Queen in 2018. It has garden terraces, a gym and licensed bar. Peter Harrison, chief executive, said: “We used to do our work in the office, and we used to go out to meet to build teams and to socialise. Now, we’ll do our work wherever it is most appropriate and we’ll collaborate in the office.” But, he added: “Our message to employees is they have to be capable of being in the office tomorrow. So it’s not an option for them to go and live on the Isle of Skye.” (Sunday Times)

Retailers suffer as consumers spend time in restaurants instead of shops: Retail sales fell last month as households spent cash in restaurants rather than shops. Despite hopes that the reopening of hospitality would boost footfall in shops on the high street, retail sales fell by 1.4% between April and May, according to the Office for National Statistics. Economists were expecting growth of 1.6%. Retail sales volumes were 24.6% higher than in May last year but the annual figures were distorted as most shops were closed at this time last year. Signs that consumers had shifted spending were clearest in the food category, where sales fell by 5.7% during the month as people started visiting cafes and restaurants instead of eating every meal at home. Specialist retailers of alcoholic drinks and tobacco reported a monthly decline of 8.4%. “Feedback from retailers suggested sales were negatively affected in May by the reopening of all retail sectors and the relaxation of hospitality restrictions,” the report said. Paul Dales, chief UK economist at Capital Economics, said: “This data does mean that retail sales will have taken 0.1 percentage points off GDP in May. We still suspect that GDP in May rose by 1.5 to 2% month on month as spending just shifted from the shops to social activities.” (The Times)

James Timpson – We’ll fix the rent problem, Rishi – you fix the rates: To give you an idea of how the market has changed, average rents now being agreed at lease renewal are down by more than 30%, and that’s without the frequent addition of six-month rent-free periods. The market is working, but as long as the moratorium stays in place, it will be distorted, and some retailers may suffer. Tenants rarely win in the long run. Our biggest issue isn’t the moratorium, but the crazy £31 billion business rates system, which we see as a tsunami that will wash over us when the holiday ends. In 2020, after years of inaction, the government showed how easily it could help us by reducing rates to zero. Rates revaluations are too slow (the last one took place in 2015 and came into effect in 2017), and the way they are calculated is too clunky and expensive. Without a sensible rates solution, more shops will close, rents will be left unpaid, and many high streets will die. The business rates can has been kicked down the road for years. It’s time to stop kicking. Rishi Sunak is due to deliver a report on reform of the rates system this autumn. Brave decisions have helped save our high streets during covid; brave decisions are needed now. (Sunday Times column)

PizzaExpress and Wagamama lead the way in vowing to make it normal to take your leftovers home to eat later: Some of Britain’s best-known restaurants have thrown their weight behind The Mail on Sunday’s mission to make taking home leftovers a normal part of eating out. PizzaExpress, Wagamama, Frankie & Benny’s, Franco Manca, Chiquito, The Real Greek, Coppa Club, Tavolino and the D&D London group of restaurants – which include Quaglino’s, where the Queen has dined – have all pledged to do more to promote take-home doggy bags to their customers, either by training staff or updating their menus. It is a major boost for our War On Food Waste campaign, which is calling on households, retailers and restaurants to tackle this hidden environmental disaster. An MoS investigation covering more than 20 major dining chains, which account for thousands of restaurants and pubs, found venues are routinely failing to encourage customers to take uneaten food home. Although nearly all restaurants do provide doggy bags if asked, hardly any tell staff to make diners aware of this option at the end of their meals. And none of the chains includes a note on their menus to tell customers that they can request a take-home container. In the worst example of poor practice, Wetherspoon pubs refuse to offer take-home doggy bags at all. Mitchells & Butlers – which operates Harvester, Toby Carvery, Miller & Carter and Browns at more than 1,700 venues across the UK – lets individual managers decide whether to provide doggy bags. A Wetherspoon spokesman claimed there ‘isn’t a demand from customers’ for a take-home option. Yet a study for this newspaper found that an overwhelming 81% of the public want all restaurants to offer doggy bags as standard practice. Our investigation found that Zizzi, Ask Italian and upmarket steak restaurant Hawksmoor have already trained staff in the UK to ask customers when clearing tables whether they want unfinished meals bagged up to take home as standard practice. PizzaExpress said take-home boxes were regularly provided, but promised to make this a more formal aspect of its customer service. (Mail on Sunday)

Marina O’Loughlin reviews Saint Jacques restaurant and Frank’s bar, London: A short promenade to Boulestin at the bottom of St James’s Street, which always seemed to me the Frenchest of the French. But, while I wasn’t looking, it has changed into Saint Jacques – previously a few doors further up the street – and is, if possible, even Frencher, from its chequerboard floor, plant-draped atrium and burnt-orange banquettes to its menu of escargots and rognons de veau. There’s a delicious hidden courtyard – according to the legend, formerly part of Henry VIII’s real tennis court and the setting for bear-baiting and bare-knuckle fighting. I know it, even more disturbingly, as the scene for many Made in Chelsea seductions. Shh: we all have our weird enthusiasms. There’s a lot of performative trolleying here – steak tartare, crêpes suzette – from the yellow-braces-sporting host, Richard Weiss. What fun. But I just can’t see a cheese soufflé on a menu and not order it; this is airy-cheesy perfection, even if the frites taste like catering-pack disappointment. Quelle blague. Tarte fine aux pommes, both pastry and apples wafer-thin and caramelised, a quenelle of the silkiest ginger ice cream on top, makes up for them. Early dinner allows for, well, supper. Aka another dinner. I’m ending my holiday with some utter decadence back in Duke Street, where the super-chic Frank’s lives underneath Maison François, its central bar hung with sausages and adorned with jars of pickles and a handsome meat slicer. Some might think the perfect French postprandial digestif is a marc or a calvados, cognac for the traditionalist, absinthe for the determined. That the ideal dessert would be a Paris-Brest, mousse au chocolat or oeufs à la neige. Mais non, pals: I’m having a martini and a brain bun. This is my fantasy holiday, and in it there’s no space for hangovers or dyspepsia, no shame or remorse. The staff here have got hold of my identity and keep using my name like a diss – “Your favourite drink, Marina”; “How do you like the jambon de Bigorre, Marina?”; “We are giving you free bread, Marina” – something that’s the antithesis of hospitality and makes me feel deeply uncomfortable. Such a pity, as I’d had it earmarked as a subterranean haven of grown-ups and air conditioning rather than somewhere to feel jangled and uncool. (Sunday Times Magazine)

Giles Coren reviews Humble Chicken: Angelo Sato is a Japanese-born chef who moved to Britain at the age of 17 to work for Clare Smyth at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay (not overly adored by me on these pages), trained under the great Adam Byatt at Trinity (LOVED by me on these pages) and Daniel Humm (unfairly mocked by me on these pages) at Eleven Madison Park, before becoming head chef at Restaurant Story (politely applauded by me on these pages). More recently, he has thrilled street-food nerds with his katsu sandos at Yatai and launched a successful chirashi sushi bowls takeaway business called Omoide (neither of which really plays to my mealtime needs). But now, at last, he has opened Humble Chicken, a comb-to-tail yakitori grill in Soho. He can cook too, this Angelo. We started off with two skewers each of the skin (£3/skewer), the rib (£2.70), the meatball (£4.50), the neck (£3), the tail (£3), the achilles (£4) and the mixed offal (£2.50), which was heart and liver, I think. And everything was lustrous and glossy, bold and full-flavoured and prettily plated with a splash of colour from a leaf or a powder, a fruit or a sauce. What came next were skewers of the knee and cartilage (£2.70), wing (£3), oyster (£3.50), liver (£3), fillet (£3.20) and shoulder (£3). All I can say is that, as you’d expect in a sweep through an entire chicken, there were sweet, fatty moments and crisp, crackly moments, salty moments and blander moments, chewy moments and round, crunchy, cartilaginous moments. Each skewer had a pickle or citrus element to sharpen its focus. Or a stripe of mustard or wasabi. An egg yolk to dip, prosaic chive or minty shiso. It’s beer food. Izakaya snacks. Pub grub. And bloody good. Proper chickens too: slow-grown, free-range birds from Sutton Hoo – which is always important but doubly so when you’re eating into the very depths of each beast. (The Times Magazine)

Jay Rayner on Imad’s Syrian Kitchen, London: With some restaurants, it’s all about the story. Imad’s Syrian Kitchen is one of them. Imad Alarnab, a round-shouldered man with the sort of soft smile that tells you everything is going to be OK, was a successful chef and restaurateur in Damascus. He ran three restaurants in the city alongside cafes and juice bars. It took just six days at the height of the Syrian war for them all to be destroyed. In 2015, he left to find a better life for his family. He would send for them later. Eventually, he made it to London, where he was given asylum and was able to make good on his promise to his family, who joined him. At first, he worked as a car salesman. But he wasn’t a car salesman, he was a chef. So he started doing that instead. He ran supper clubs and pop-up restaurants and falafel bars, raising thousands of pounds for the charity Choose Love, which works with refugees just like Alarnab. Later, he raised a further £50,000 through a crowdfunder for his own permanent restaurant. It was due to open last December. Now, finally, here it is in the space off London’s Carnaby Street previously occupied by Asma Khan’s Darjeeling Express; a white-walled, floorboarded room suffused with light beneath a beamed ceiling. It gives the sense of being tucked into the eaves of a house, away from the chaos of the world. The menu he has brought with him is short and to the point. On the left are eight meat-free small plates for between £5.50 and £8; on the right are five larger chicken and lamb mains for between £9 and £15. The short wine list, weirdly, is less welcoming price-wise; surely they can find a reasonable red wine to sell for less than £26 or a white for less than £31, currently the opening prices. I hope so. Then again £1 from every bill will be donated to Choose Love. Few dish descriptions will startle anybody reasonably versed in the Middle Eastern repertoire, though they have their own idiosyncrasies. The hummus here is a cheerily rugged and punchy affair, topped with whole chickpeas, micro greens, dribbles of olive oil and the purple promise of sumac. There are warm, pillow-soft rounds of flatbread puffing hot air at you as you tear into them. (The Observer Magazine)

Tom Parker Bowles on Koba, London: For a few moments, it all seems too much, a full-frontal assault on my tender senses, a cacophonous affront to a previously tranquil life. The din – dear god, that din – punctuated with roars of delight and shrieks of laughter. And the room, dangerously dim, the air thick with smoke and desire. It’s packed, straining at the seams (all covid secure, of course), as harried but friendly staff rush and bustle with plates of raw meat, bottles of ice-cold beer and carafe after carafe of soju, that smoothy lethal Korean dram. Because here at Koba, a Korean barbecue restaurant just behind London’s Charlotte Street, things are as they once were. Each table has its own grill (gas, sadly, rather than charcoal), with an elephant trunk-shaped extractor fan hanging above. It battles gamely with the char-scented fug, but to no avail. Anyway, that’s part of the fun, to leave the place scented with eau de Maillard reaction. This is all about the grill. Sure, the seafood pancake is excellent, both crisp and chewy, filled with kimchi and octopus, prawns and mussels, containing that wonderfully Korean combination of the sweet and mildly spicy. And softly silken miso sobaegi, an umami explosion of aubergine, miso and mushrooms, is rich and subtle, with a sly chilli kick. Toppoki, cylindrical spicy rice cakes, are as chewy and satisfying as ever. But as the gas is turned on, and the grill heats up, so the raw meats start to arrive, all hewn from well brought-up beasts. Rib eye, the fat swirling through the flesh in great alabaster eddies, needs only a few moments on the heat before being removed, splodged with gochujang, all sweet, fermented chilli hit and a pinch of spring onion, and wrapped in a vast lettuce leaf. Cool, crunch, hot, chew. Divine. There’s La galbi, soy-marinated beef ribs, more heft and chew. And spicy pork belly, spicy chicken – glorious carnivorous overload – all cooked, chopped anointed, wrapped and devoured. Washed down with Cass beer, then soju, and more soju and before long, we are not just feasting in Koba but are part of it, the joyous collective experience of eating out, together, on a busy weeknight. The smoke grows thicker, the hubbub more boisterous. On the next-door table, a drinking game begins. (Mail on Sunday)

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