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Sun 15th Aug 2021 - Weekend leisure stories and restaurant reviews
More deals on the menu for takeaway apps: Will Shu had plenty of reasons to be upbeat. Unveiling Deliveroo’s results this week after its disastrous March float, Shu, the company’s founder and chief executive, told investors that it was back on track. After £2bn was wiped from the company’s value in its first day of trading, Deliveroo was finally approaching a share price just shy of its initial public offering, and delivery orders were booming. Of course, all anybody wanted to ask about was whether Deliveroo was about to become somebody else’s snack. Last Monday, it emerged that Delivery Hero, a €29bn (£24.6bn) German giant of the sector, had snapped up a 5% stake in its British rival. Investors have perked up at the prospect of takeover talk. Last year saw a series of major swoops in the food space. Dutch firm Takeaway.com completed a £6.2bn deal to buy FTSE-listed Just Eat and announced it would snatch US rival Grubhub from under the nose of Uber. Uber made its own move with a $2.6bn deal for Postmates. Today, obvious merger pairings are growing thin on the ground, says Giles Thorne, an analyst at Jefferies. “It would ultimately have to come down to opportunism – getting a good price for the asset,” he says. The logic behind a traditional merger would be to grab market share or international expansion. Any combination between food delivery players in the UK, which now has just three big players in Deliveroo, Just Eat and Uber Eats, would almost certainly attract scrutiny from competition watchdogs. That has not stopped calls from shareholders for more blockbuster M&A. Investors at FTSE 100 firm Just Eat Takeaway argue that its share price, which has fallen 26% so far this year, makes it just such an opportunistic target. “There is a fairly large block of shareholders who think enough is enough,” says one shareholder. Another adds: “The for sale sign is up. One swoop and you would be done.” (The Telegraph)

London’s cafe culture has left a sour taste for stressed residents: Continental Europe has come to the UK – at least when the sun shines. In towns and cities all over the country, alfresco dining has exploded, with thousands of extra outdoor seats being licensed. Many in the hospitality industry say the move has saved their business from bankruptcy after catastrophic losses during the pandemic. Now, although covid restrictions have been lifted, the government is considering making outdoor dining a permanent feature rather than a short-term response to a crisis. Not everyone is happy. In Soho, the centre of London’s nightlife, residents say alfresco dining and drinking has disrupted access and created intolerable noise. People who have lived there for decades are considering leaving, according to the Soho Society. Samar Zia, who has lived in social housing in Soho since 2016 with her husband and two children, keeps her windows closed some evenings because of noise. “People are singing at the top of their lungs, and some use my terrace as a lavatory,” she said. “Alfresco dining was and is a complete life-saver,” said David Taylor, who owns the Balans restaurants in Soho. “Without it, Soho was dead. Suddenly, there was a place to come, even in a pandemic – and it had a wonderful vibe.” In Soho, hospitality business owners want licensing for outdoor seating to continue beyond the end of September. “It will take us a long time to get back to normal. All of us are going to have to start paying back rent that wasn’t paid in the last 17 months. Alfresco is going to be an important part of our recovery,” said Taylor. Taylor said there was a “small but very strong lobby” of residents who did not acknowledge the benefits of outdoor seating, such as less traffic. “If you choose to live in Soho, you have to accept there are going to be a lot of people around,” he said. Tim Lord, chair of the Soho Society, said there had been no consultation with residents over the licensing of outdoor seating seven days a week until 11pm. “We’re used to noise, but the sheer numbers of people in the streets until late at night has been difficult for those of us who live here,” he said. “Some who’ve been Soho residents for decades are now leaving.” (The Observer)

Luke Johnson – As the pandemic continues to recede, if workers refuse to return to the office, they may find their job is outsourced to India: Almost all of Britain’s bosses are grappling with the working from home dilemma: how often should staff come to the office? Since the government introduced lockdowns in March 2020, at least a quarter of the workforce – more than eight million people – have been working from home. Many are strongly in favour of continuing this giant, national experiment because they avoid commuting. Britons have saved at least £50 billion in fares and other costs of getting to and from work. If workers once again have to travel to the office every weekday, then the commuting costs will feel like a pay cut. But bosses know that an organisation’s culture is essential to its success. Some research suggests that working from home has boosted productivity, thanks to less wasted time commuting. But the long-term damage to staff motivation and morale in a Zoom universe is hard to gauge. The risk is that we have reached a historic turning point and, in my view, we are sleepwalking into a decision made more for the sake of cost and convenience than the long-term health of business and the economy. We are about to lose sight of all the benefits of having groups of people working in close proximity. If we continue, we may not find out the worst of the impact for years – by which time, this flirtation with home working might begin to look like a mis-step. Most entrepreneurs I know desperately want most of their people in the office most of the time. They know that video conferencing is a poor substitute for face-to-face meetings. Nuance, humour, non-verbal communication and humanity are all lost on a digital screen. I try to do all meetings that matter in person – interviews, key pitches, important discussions. Creativity and inspiration are hard to generate remotely. Mostly I feel drained after a video meeting, whereas often a positive real meeting raises my spirits and energy levels. I realise that some people are still fearful of crowded public transport. Moreover, business leaders are worried about litigation from staff who feel they have been bullied into returning to workplaces where they feel unsafe because of covid. But I have a suspicion that many who indicate support for lockdowns in surveys do so because they are worried they will have to return to the office full-time when restrictions end for good. (Mail on Sunday)

Irish pubs’ teetotal twist is path to world domination: Heard the one about the Irish pub with no alcohol? The booze-free bar, invented in Dublin, is about to go global, having proved an unlikely hit in the home of Guinness. The Virgin Mary, an alcohol-free bar that began serving in 2019, is to open a franchised outlet at the Galleria Al Maryah Island, a shopping centre in Abu Dhabi, next month. It will have an Irish manager and staff. There are also plans to bring the “dry bar” concept to America, Australia and other parts of the Middle East, just as the Irish pub concept spread in the 1990s, with an estimated 7,000 worldwide. Sarah Connolly, co-owner of The Virgin Mary, which will trade as TVM in Abu Dhabi to avoid use of the word “virgin”, said the pub had attracted a range of customers. She said: “We were expecting a ‘Gen Z’ crowd when we opened, because a lot of the research would indicate that is the biggest population looking for alcohol-free drinks. People give up alcohol at different times. We get people who are completely sober; just having a night off drinking; training for a marathon; we get baby showers. There’s a whole host of different reasons people come in.” Having long endured stereotypes of the “drunken Irish”, the nation would enjoy a boost to its pride if it can export alcohol-free bars. It may be an idea whose time has come, with sales of no-alcohol and low-alcohol drinks proving popular. Anthony Foley, a professor of economics at Dublin City University, said about one in five Irish adults did not drink alcohol. “There’s certainly a market for non- and low-alcoholic drinks, but whether there’s a market for pubs that are entirely non-alcoholic is more debatable,” he said. (Sunday Times)

Sadiq Khan pushes on with congestion charge expansion plan: Sadiq Khan is pressing ahead with plans to expand the congestion charging zone to the boundaries of Greater London with a levy of up to £5.50 per vehicle. The London mayor has ordered officials to conduct a “feasibility study” into a charge that was dubbed “Checkpoint Chigwell” by critics earlier this year. Plans to seize the capital’s share of vehicle excise duty – known as road tax – from the government have now been dropped, according to City Hall insiders. Both ideas put forward by Mr Khan to raise roughly £500m-a-year to part-fill a gaping hole in the finances of Transport for London. The capital’s transport authority, chaired by the London mayor, has received a series of bailouts from Westminster so that bus, Tube and rail services can keep running. (Sunday Telegraph)

UK to ban shark fin soup, putting pressure on other nations to follow suit: The UK is to ban shark fin soup in an effort to halt the “indescribably cruel” practice of finning and help boost shark numbers. A new law will make the import or export of shark fins illegal, also covering processed products such as tinned shark fin soup. The dish, popular in parts of China and south-east Asia, is still served at a handful of restaurants in the UK, though the practice itself has been banned in British waters for over a decade. Shark finning is a threat to shark populations worldwide. It typically involves removing the fin from the animal before returning it to the water unable to swim, where it bleeds to death or is eaten by other sea creatures. The UK is not a major hub for the trade of fins, but the move is expected to put pressure on other countries to follow suit in an effort to boost shark populations. It comes as part of a series of animal welfare measures first announced in May, which include plans to recognise vertebrate species as sentient beings. The plans are championed by Lord Goldsmith, animal welfare minister, and Carrie Johnson, the prime minister’s wife, who is a long-time animal welfare campaigner. (Sunday Telegraph)

Ed Sheeran’s London restaurant struggling after months of pandemic lockdowns: Ed Sheehan has hinted his restaurant business is struggling due to the strains of the pandemic – irrespective of the fact he is worth an estimated £220 million. The 30-year-old chart topping star might be one of the biggest earners in the music world – pandemic or not – but he has suggested he has been sinking money in his failing Bertie Blossoms restaurant. The fancy dinner spot, based in West London, was launched by Ed not long before the covid-19 pandemic forced the UK into lockdown back in March last year. The Lego House singer launched the business with his manager Stuart Camp – with the business named in honour of both their wives – but Ed says he will struggle to make the books balance after the restaurant reopened after months of lockdown-forced closure. And this on top of the fact he was giving away discounted wine when trying to encourage take-away orders during the height of the pandemic. He told Jessie Ware’s Dinner Manners podcast: “If you’re looking to make a small fortune in the food industry you should start with a large fortune. It’s one of these things where, unless you’re Jamie Oliver or Gordon Ramsay and you have loads of restaurants, it’s very difficult. It’s had a rocky start as it opened two months before the pandemic.” (The Sun)

Marina O’Loughlin reviews Oren, Dalston: A funny thing happens while I’m having dinner at Oren: I have what I think might be a paradigm shift. Up till this minute, every restaurant I’ve visited since the onset of You Know What has been struggling with the attendant difficulties, a combination of necessary hygiene strictures, random governmental decrees and nervy customers. All empathy, every scrap, but it’s been impossible to ignore. In this little Dalston room, however, I suddenly notice what I haven’t been noticing: not masks, not sanitisers, not the missing-teeth spaces between tables. I’m just having a blast. And so is everyone else. Oren is the creation of Israeli chef Oded Oren, his own place after the inevitable round of pop-ups and residencies. The menu celebrates Tel Aviv-ish cuisine, without being slavish. Or – as they put it – “eastern Mediterranean-style sharing plates from a charcoal grill”. Of those that spring immediately to mind, all the restaurants doing this kind of food are superb – Bubala, the Barbary, Honey & Co, plus, of course, the empire of godfather Yotam Ottolenghi – and this is no exception. There’s something about this way of cooking that’s hugely cheering, regularly delivering the sparkiest, most happy-making experiences. It’s all to do with the fierce intensity of the cooking methods, the immediacy of the presentation: just exhilarating. And the shimmering beauty of the ingredients – here, they’re allowed to tell their own stories, and there’s nowhere for the substandard to hide. Oren is very much a neighbourhood restaurant and appears to have few ambitions beyond that of making its locals happy. Staff couldn’t be lovelier – they make our night every bit as much as the food does. This is exactly the sort of outfit I’d miss most if seen off by these grim times. It’s also the sort of place least equipped to withstand them: small and independent, without the deep pockets of conglomerates. But should anyone make their way here from beyond the neighbourhood, I’m pretty confident it would make them happy too. The short menu changes regularly, so this is a snapshot, a flavour of what to expect. Some things are constants: the flatbreads; a pitta Jerusalem mixed grill (stuffed with smoke- and cumin-scented chicken livers, duck hearts and lamb sweetbreads with tahini and turmeric-pickled mango); a dense, intense, venial sin of a chocolate mousse. And, hooray, the pork chop: that alone is worth any trip to Dalston. Any trip anywhere, basically. (Sunday Times Magazine)

Jay Rayner reviews The Polo Lounge at the Dorchester Hotel: Editors don’t send their journalists to cover wars because they like misery and carnage. They do so because the readers need to know about the carnage. By the same token, albeit with rather less moral urgency, I didn’t go to the pop-up of the Polo Lounge on the rooftop of London’s Dorchester Hotel because I like watching rich people pay ludicrous prices for cack-handed food that’s a gross insult to good taste, manners and commercial decency. I went because some risible hospitality operations need to be called out. Being positive is all well and good, but that shouldn’t mean absolute shockers get a free pass. The menu tells me they are delighted to bring “a taste of Tinseltown” to London complete with “pink bougainvillaea”. And there it is, climbing the wall behind me. I touch it. The bougainvillaea is plastic. So are the tables, the place mats and various of my fellow diners’ body parts. There’s anatomy on display tonight that hasn’t moved since 2010. The menu promises “live music”. They have a glum-looking DJ, blundering through a soundtrack of club tunes. In the sense that she’s pressing play it is, I suppose, a kind of live, but also deathly. Look at those prices. The bread basket is £16. The salads start at £28. A bowl of pasta is £38. A steak is £135. Certain items are described as Polo Lounge “signature” dishes. Prime among them is the McCarthy salad, named not after the commie-hunting senator, which would make a certain vindictive sense, but a polo player called Neil. It costs £38, and arrives looking like someone with an organising compulsion has been at the Garfunkel’s salad bar. A few years ago, my less than positive review of the Parisian gastro palace Le Cinq was dismissed by the management as “rich bashing”. Here, it’s the restaurant that seems to be bashing the rich, flogging them dismal food at inexplicable prices. At the end, a perky waiter asks me how it all was and in my gruesome passive-aggressive way I say, “Fine”. She replies, “Amazing.” I think: “Yeah, let’s go with that.” I have a bill for over £370 for a meal that included a dreadful salad, terrible crab cakes, mediocre pasta, and a grossly overpriced rosé. If that isn’t amazing, I really don’t know what is. (The Observer)

Tom Parker Bowles reviews Los Mochis, London W8: Los Mochis is, according to the website, ‘the ultimate pan-Pacific pairing of Mexican and Japanese cuisine’. Dear god, what fresh hell is this? As if we haven’t all suffered enough, then along comes a new restaurant threatening to mash two of the world’s most thrilling cuisines into one half-witted, leaden-palated, presumably Instagram-able mess. The horror. So pen sharpened, delicate culinary sensibilities primed to be oh-so offended, and ghast very much flabbered, we march upon Los Mochis, tucked away in a pretty street behind West London’s Notting Hill Gate, growling ‘Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting)’ with a steely glint in our eyes. But before the rout commences, a decent margarita from the lovely waiter. And as we settle into our table, half inside, half out, a balmy breeze cutting through the sultry night, irritation slowly softens. The bare brick walls and vaguely psychedelic portraits of Santa Muerte, Frida Kahlo and, er, Yoda certainly look more attractive as the natural light fades. And even at 6.30, the whole place is bathed in a blissfully happy hubbub. It feels like, well, old times. The food is far better than expected. No birria ramen or natto-stuffed chillies, rather a menu firmly divided into sashimi, tacos, ceviches and maki rolls. But am I not being prissily close-minded? Maybe it’s the second margarita kicking in, but haven’t Peruvian and Japanese food been beautifully melded together, as Nikkei cuisine, for decades? And Roy Choi, among others, shows exactly what fun the marriage of Mexican and Korean can be. That, though, is for another time and place. Fish quality is excellent, the o’toro sashimi lavishly rich and gloriously fatty. OK, so Jiro might not be dreaming of the knife skills, but they’re good enough. There’s a bracing seabass ceviche, pert and sharp, and a soft, subtle tuna tartare. Tortillas and salsas are made fresh, always the sign of a place that takes tacos seriously. Cabo fish taco, carnitas and al pastor are more than respectable. By now, the place is throbbing, and any initial misgivings have long since disappeared. If you’re after authentic regional cooking, then you may be disappointed. But if it’s good tacos and sashimi, cracking cocktails and a merry night out, you’re very much in luck. Los Mochis is a blast. (Mail on Sunday)

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