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Sun 19th Sep 2021 - Weekend leisure stories and restaurant reviews
Bar and restaurant owners will be stopped from keeping staff tips under new laws: Bar and restaurant owners will be stopped from keeping tips intended for staff under new laws. Workers will become legally entitled to receive 100% of the perk. At the moment, bosses can decide whether to keep the gratuity when a customer pays by card – which is increasingly the main way to pay. Business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng will this week announce the plan to give the income boost to 1.7 million people in the hospitality sector. A Whitehall source said: “Workers going above and beyond for their customers can rest assured hard-earned tips will go directly in their pocket and nobody else’s. We’re ending dodgy tipping practices. We are also levelling the playing field for businesses, ensuring that good firms which give all the tips to workers are not undercut by the firms which keep the money.” After research found that up to two thirds of employers in the hospitality sector take a share of customer gratuities, the Unite Union lobbied Kwarteng to complain that the covid fall in cash payments combined with employers ‘interfering’ with tips had created a ‘perfect storm’, which had cost workers an average of £2,000 a year – and wiped out recent rises in the Living Wage and Minimum Wage. Kwarteng’s action follows the introduction by the Conservative MP for Watford, Dean Russell, of a Tips Bill to remove the power of restaurants and pubs to deduct money received by staff in tips, with workers either keeping the money received by them directly, or agreeing to a pooling system with colleagues. Russell said: “It’s always felt wrong to me that businesses can take the tips that have been given by the customer directly to that individual or to the staff, and then go, ‘Well, actually, that’s part of the payment for what they’re getting.” Unite said the new laws needed to be sufficiently robust to avoid being undermined by loopholes. (Mail on Sunday)

We won’t pay rent in a crisis, Greggs tells small landlords: Greggs has been accused of taking advantage of the pandemic by demanding rent reductions while making record profits. The bakery has asked a landlord to cut its rent and wants suspension clauses added to all new leases. These would mean that the company would not have to pay rent for three months from the launch of “local or national disease, quarantine or national isolation restrictions due to plagues, epidemics or pandemics”. Many landlords suffered steep drops in income after agreeing to allow big retailers to pay less rent in lockdowns, even though some tenants continued to trade. The restaurant chain Nando’s, the chain and the sandwich shop Subway paid little or no rent last year, even though they traded for much of the time. One landlord who owns a portfolio of retail and residential units in London said that he was sent the new set of demands after Greggs’ five-year lease on one of his shops expired in the spring. He has refused to add the clause or agree to the proposed rent cut from £38,000 to £30,000 a year. “This would cost me £9,000 in income from the moment any restrictions come into place,” he said. “That, along with the reduction in rent they want, would hit me for £17,000. It’s totally unacceptable.” The landlord added: “Given the way things are going, I’m much happier to rent out my units to small independent businesses like hairdressers and coffee shops rather than these big chains, who think they can bully us.” Greggs has a rolling lease on the site but is threatening to pull out. Adam Coffer, the chairman of the Property Owners’ Forum, said: “In principle I like the certainty of having some kind of form to help landlords navigate future restrictions. But any clause has to be reasonable and fair. The Greggs analogy is similar to me owing someone £5,000 and turning up for a beer with a brand new Rolex on my wrist. Landlords have always been willing to share the pain. But many of my members are small-scale landlords with one property. In many cases their tenants are companies owned by billionaires or multimillion-pound private equity companies.” Greggs said: “We upheld all of our rental commitments throughout the pandemic, with no rental holidays. It would not be appropriate to talk about our stance on commercial negotiations.” (The Sunday Times)

Morrisons serves up deal to supply pubs as takeover auction looms: The grocer Morrisons is to begin selling to pubs, restaurants and hotels in a bid to expand its wholesale business rapidly. The FTSE 250 supermarket chain, which is also the UK’s second biggest fresh-food producer, is understood to have signed a deal with StarStock, an online portal that enables businesses to order directly from suppliers. The idea is that restaurateurs, hoteliers and pub groups will be able to stock their kitchens with products sourced from Morrisons. StarStock has already agreed partnerships with producers including Asahi, Coca-Cola and Britvic. By moving into food service wholesale, Morrisons will be competing for a £5 billion market against incumbents such as Brakes and Bookers, which is owned by rival Tesco. Morrisons, which owns the Safeway brand, also supplies convenience shops including McColl’s. Under the deal, Morrisons will initially stock 1,500 products. That is likely to be expanded over the next six to twelve months. The expansion will provide new revenue at a time when the supermarket chain, which operates 497 supermarkets, is at the centre of a £7 billion takeover tussle between the private equity firm Clayton Dubilier & Rice and a consortium led by Fortress Investment. As neither suitor has declared their bids “final”, Morrisons’ sale will now go to auction next month. (The Sunday Times)

Club owners poised to launch legal action to block vaccine passports: Hospitality business leaders are preparing to take legal action to halt the introduction of vaccine passports in Scotland after experts warned they may breach human rights legislation. Representatives of bar and restaurant owners consulted lawyers yesterday to discuss a potential action before Scottish ministers publish proposed regulations. Nicola Sturgeon says the passport system will be established in two weeks’ time, though a similar scheme has so far been rejected by the UK government for England. “Across hospitality, there’s a view that this scheme is discriminatory and iniquitous, and will distort the market,” Donald MacLeod, a Glasgow nightclub owner, said. “It is absurd to call this a public health measure, it is not. It’s also nonsense for ministers to say they are consulting. They are just telling us what to do.” Dr Catriona McMillan, convener of the health and medical law subcommittee at the Law Society of Scotland, told Holyrood’s covid-19 recovery committee that there was “scope for uncertainty” on issues such as the definition of a nightclub. There was “not a categorical answer” on whether the scheme could be regarded discriminatory. She said: “It is uncertain whether things such as anti-vaccine beliefs would be considered as a ‘protected characteristic’ under the Equalities Act. Certain groups who have lower vaccine uptake are protected by the Equalities Act and thus may be disproportionately affected by the regulations.” The Scottish government needed to define what “reasonable measures” a venue needed to take to check vaccine status “as soon as possible”. An estimated 2,000 nightclubs and late-opening bars will be affected by the scheme and some have warned that they will be forced out of business. MacLeod said any new rules were potentially fraught with difficulties. “Will people from England or from abroad be allowed into places?” he asked. “Tourism is such a vital component of the events and hospitality industry. We need answers.” (The Sunday Times)

Franco Manca’s secret recipe? The price: Alessio Costabile, a chef at Franco Manca’s busy Covent Garden outpost in central London, can prepare and serve a pizza in less than 90 seconds. It’s just as well. Customers, often stopping in for a pre-theatre bite, usually do not hang around for more than 30 minutes. “If the oven’s hot, it takes just 40 seconds,” said Costabile, 27, who has worked at the restaurant for two years. On a busy day Costabile and the other chefs serve up to 90 pizzas an hour at the 70-seat restaurant on Maiden Lane. Diners, who spend an average of £12 each, are attracted to the £7.25 Margherita pizza, its most popular, and £6.25 cocktails. Franco Manca is emerging as a survivor in an industry that has been left reeling from coronavirus restrictions that forced restaurants to close for months. The chain, which has 55 sites across the UK, has hit upon a formula that has led to packed-out restaurants and soaring sales when so many of its rivals have failed – even before the pandemic hit. Over the past three years, Jamie’s Italian has collapsed while PizzaExpress and Prezzo have closed hundreds of sites and slashed jobs. Strada, the Italian dining chain formerly owned by Richard Caring, has only two restaurants left. Franco Manca’s trick is keeping prices low without relying on discounting, which rivals such as PizzaExpress use to attract diners. It has become one of Britain’s fastest growing dining chains simply by offering low-cost sourdough pizza and a small range of other dishes, and has come out of the pandemic in a strong position. Delivery, which rose during lockdown, has remained above pre-covid levels – last week it made up 28% of revenues, compared with 15% before. Franco Manca is so obsessed by price that it has become part of its mantra: its most expensive pizza should always be cheaper than a Margherita at PizzaExpress. The other tenet is that customers should always be able to have a pizza and a Coca-Cola for £10. (Sunday Times)

“There’s been a sea change in hospitality” – Michel Roux Jr: “More than ever, it is important to tell the next generation in the UK that hospitality is a career”, says Michel Roux Jr. “Traditionally, restaurants haven’t been seen as a long-term career in this country, not to most people,” he says. “We need better training and we need better infrastructure. The industry has been neglected too long and it’s been seen as secondary. But hospitality is such a huge part of the UK. It’s massive – both in the number of people it employs and economically. If every hotel in this country was fully staffed right now, I’m sure our balance sheet would be looking far rosier.” Michel concedes hospitality has not always been an easy choice. Although the rockstar chefs of the 1990s enticed more into kitchens, a sustainable, balanced approach was slow to follow. The pandemic and Brexit have further hindered progress, but he says there’s been a distinct and progressive “sea change” in recent years. “How do we make it better and more attractive? We should be asking these questions,” he tells i. “Why are we in this mess? Well, the government has its head in the sand. Nobody wants to backtrack or U-turn. But we should be making it easier to come and work here – who in their right mind would want to work in the UK right now? We really must invest in the future. What saddens me is we had five years to prepare for Brexit. We should’ve been investing in training. Anyone with a modicum of intelligence could see this staffing crisis coming.” At Le Gavroche, lauded since 1967, Michel is short of around 16 staff across the kitchen and the restaurant floor. “That’s 16 people we could be giving good jobs to – jobs with great prospects”, he says. (i News)

Beer, fizzy drinks and meat supplies threatened as CO2 shortage deepens: The UK is bracing itself for a severe shortage of CO2 gas impacting supplies of beer, fizzy drink and meat. Supermarkets shelves and restaurants are expected to be affected this week given that the gas is instrumental to the production of carbonated drinks and meat processing. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) was on Thursday warned of the shortages caused by the closure of two major fertiliser plants this week. The government said it had a close eye on the situation, adding the country had access to CO2 beyond the plants. A spokesperson said: “We are monitoring the situation closely, and are in regular contact with the food and farming organisation and industry, to help them manage the current situation. The UK benefits from having access to highly diverse sources of gas supply to ensure households, businesses and heavy industry get the energy they need at a fair price.” CF Industries Holdings closed two of its plants in Billingham in Stockton-on-Tees and Ince in Cheshire on Thursday, both of which are estimated to account for up to 60% of the UK’s CO2 supplies. It said it was halting production due to the rising prices of natural gas, and had no indication as to when it would resume. Whilst the drinks industry relies on CO2 to carbonate beverages, the meat industry uses the gas extensively throughout processing; in slaughterhouses, and for packaging and refrigeration. (The Independent)

London’s iconic Ritz hotel made a £27m loss last year after its sale by billionaire Barclay twins to Qatari investor: London’s iconic Ritz hotel made a £27 million loss last year after its sale by the billionaire Barclay twins to a Qatari investor. The five-star hotel shut its doors for the first time in its 114-year history last year due to covid. New accounts show its closure for more than five months meant turnover fell 74% to £13.3 million, down from £50.3 million in 2019. It made a £27.3 million pre-tax loss – compared with a £2.4 million profit the previous year. Qatari tycoon Abdulhadi Mana Al-Hajri is thought to have paid around £700 million in March 2020 for the hotel. The Barclay brothers – who had bought the Ritz for £75 million in 1995 – had argued over the sale, with Sir Frederick threatening to sue unless a buyer paid £1 billion. Sir David died in January, aged 86. The Ritz took £3.49 million from the furlough scheme and deferred £806,000 of VAT payments ‘to aid cashflow’. A spokesman said revenues since The Ritz reopened in the summer are now ‘healthy and robust’. (Mail on Sunday)

Soho Estates lead local restaurateurs in protest against decision to deny Soho al fresco extension: The managing director of landlord Soho Estates, which owns many of the properties around the area, is leading a protest against Westminster Council’s decision not to extend the al fresco scheme that has run in W1 since summer last year. John James, who oversees much of the day-to-day running of the company and its enormous property portfolio, has bought 5,000 umbrellas printed with the words “Soho Means Business” to hand out to the public in order to draw attention to the issue. Yesterday, Westminster City Council said the outdoor dining initiative throughout Covent Garden – in particular, on Henrietta Street, King Street, Maiden Lane and parts of Southampton Street – would remain, as would a similar scheme in St John’s Wood. However, in Soho, the pedestrianisation of streets will conclude come 1 October. It has been unpopular with some local residents, though restaurateurs and hoteliers throughout the area are keen that it continues. Speaking to the Standard, James said: “Al fresco Soho was absolutely necessary to keep this business community alive and without it, there would have been so many who failed. The fact that the first version of it was brought in as an emergency measure is something we understand and Westminster Council were brilliant at removing so many barriers to making it happen at that point. [The scheme] added a wonderful legacy to Soho which people have been enjoying and it’s been a great success. Stopping it baffles me. I mean, people have managed before and it’s been going for 18 months – why, all of a sudden, is it a safety issue now?” James said that he thought the council’s decision was “premature”, explaining that he could see no reason why, after it had run so long, “it couldn’t be left in place while a consultation gets underway.” The property magnate added he and the area’s businesses accepted “that you can’t block all of Old Compton Street, but you can have outside tables behind a barrier the width of a parked car, which would leave plenty of access for traffic.” Responding to the council’s suggestion that the move was prompted by unhappy residents, James said: “I know there have a few complaints about noise but it’s certainly not from the majority of residents.” (The Standard)

Marina O’Loughlin reviews Sessions Arts Club, Farringdon: Everything about this restaurant promises pleasures: secret, even forbidden pleasures. Set in a former courthouse, the imposing building does little to hint at the levity and voluptuousness in store on the fourth floor. The entrance is almost hidden: a small red door, not quite open; there’s no signage, just the name carved into the stone threshold. Once inside, only a chic receptionist installed under a vaulted brick ceiling hints that it’s a place of hospitality. Then it’s into the lift, to exit through a velvet curtain and catch my breath in delighted astonishment. What a space: the soaring arched windows, fireplaces and faded velvet armchairs. The curious light fittings belching real flames. The walls, lined with artworks and artfully distressed as though they hadn’t been touched since Oliver Twist was fictionally sent down from this real location, in shades of verdigris and old plaster. The sense that, rather than something new, I’ve stumbled across a spot that’s been here for ever, known only to a dissipated few. Sessions Arts Club isn’t a club, it’s a “restaurant, wine bar and art gallery space”. There’s a pool on the roof (small – the pool, not the roof) and a hidden terrace. Every corner offers a new opportunity to drop jaws: even the loos are dazzling, looking into the building’s dramatic central atrium. Despite being billed as “a new opening from chef Florence Knight and artist Jonny Gent”, I find the food almost incidental. That’s not to say it isn’t good – it really is – but for me the beauty of the place is draw enough, before I even read of mackerel with datterini tomatoes and capers or lamb sweetbreads, lettuce and lovage. I’m not ashamed to say that, in this setting, they could phone me in a Nando’s and I’d probably be happy. But the addition of Knight as kitchen supremo – she made her name at Russell Norman’s once smoking-hot Polpetto and also the recipe pages of this magazine – makes me verge embarrassingly on the ecstatic. It’s as louche as the notorious Colony Room but a lot cleaner and prettier – and with a lot better food. This is a place for four-hour lunches, for cinq à sept, for abandoning all idea of restraint or frugality. They’ve embraced the whole raffish thing so fully, they’re currently open only Wednesday to Friday. I couldn’t love it more. (Sunday Times Magazine)

Jay Rayner reviews Tofu Vegan, London: Obviously, China loves its pig. Japan just adores its fish. Beware clumsy generalisations. And yet for all that, there really is so much from that part of the world that just happens to be vegan. Bring on the big hitters: those chilli bean pastes and the sesame oils, the misos and the roasted spice mixes, the tofu and the coconut milk. I could do an awful lot with that, and did. So, it seems, can the kitchen at Tofu Vegan, a new Chinese restaurant in London’s Islington from the people behind the much-admired (and non-vegan) Xi’an Impression in nearby Highbury. Its name gives you the basics. Meat and fish are out; tofu and various other bean curd preparations are in. There are cheerleading slogans on both the walls and the waiters’ aprons announcing its virtue, and a chalkboard comparing the nutritional value of eggs and tofu. (The tofu has zero cholesterol compared to the eggs, which are lousy with it. Go tofu!) But virtue is not a serving suggestion, however much some people may pretend it could be. Virtue can literally leave a nasty taste in the mouth, if the person doing the cooking isn’t up to the job. The very best dishes here are those that really are just themselves. There is no animal product that can improve a slippery and crunchy salad of black cloud ear mushroom with a ballast of salted and sliced fresh red chillies, fronds of coriander and a salty and sour dressing, with a big nutty hit from sesame oil. It is the edible equivalent of cold-water swimming. It makes your skin tingle slightly. It makes you feel more alive, which is a serious achievement for a bowl of mushrooms. I am encouraged by various waiters to have their spicy wonton, which they all tell me is their speciality, and the sauce with that is a belter. Our waiter spoons a little of it over the taut-skinned dumplings, filled with a fine dice of unidentified but crunchy vegetables. It’s a deeply flavoured and inviting bowlful. I could do serious damage to a lot of those. I end up drinking the sauce. (The Observer)

Giles Coren reviews Ave Mario, Covent Garden, London: Yes, Ave Mario. Some sort of Catholic joke, I think. Hilarious, no doubt, to those in the know. It’s owned by the French Big Mamma group (a nation one turns to for food more often than humour, as consumers of its comedic output from Molière to Charlie Hebdo will attest) that has opened seven Italian restaurants in Paris since 2013 and hit London a couple of years ago with two huge smashes, Gloria and Circolo Popolare. Really, huge. They were chockful day and night from the outset and critics I deeply respect were in raptures. As were all the ones I don’t. These restaurants, they said, were big, noisy, camp and fun, fun, fun, fun. So I avoided them. Although I did eventually get along to Circolo, for a working lunch with a couple of TV people, and just sat there riven with embarrassment that I had brought them to this gigantic explosion in a florist, rammed with influencers eating bad pasta out of novelty containers – the carbonara was served in a toilet bowl! But then they opened this Ave Mario place in Covent Garden and everyone said it was their most glorious construction yet and it was the last day of the school holidays, and, like I said, I had to do somewhere, and I thought it would be fine. It’s a novelty chain aimed at idiots, and children are idiots, right? So they’d be bound to love it. The pizza (admittedly touted as a “non-pizza”) was a big puffy piece of bread covered in some sort of acidic tomato crush and striped with a queer white substance. The vitello tonnato was a sort of Caesar dressing soup with some mean little flakes of dry meat floating in it, Kitty’s tagliata was made from skirt not sirloin so was chewy and bland, the ravioli carbonara was unspeakably grim and the cuttlefish were breaded not battered, chewy as old shoe leather and smelt of bins. “Oh look,” said my wife. “There’s a QR code on the table that lets you pay and leave without even having to call a waiter.” So I did that, and we were out in seconds – best thing about the place – and we went across the road to Five Guys, where we ate sloppy cheeseburgers and agreed never to speak of this again. (The Times Magazine)

Tom Parker Bowles reviews Humble Chicken, London’s Soho: Humble Chicken is, if nothing else, proof that there are many ways to slice a hen. Because this Soho yakitori restaurant is as much a lesson in avian anatomy as it is a damned good lunch, a fascinating paean to the Japanese art of cooking poultry (greatest hits and other bits) on skewers over burning coals. Nothing is wasted, save the beak and cluck. It sits on the site of the original Barrafina, and keeps the same L-shaped counter, where you can gaze at serious, silent chefs going about their work with an intensity and precision that makes brain surgeons look slapdash. In the corner, a neon sign shimmers through the smoke giving the place, at night at least, a feeling of an 80s Ridley Scott film. Japanese-born head chef Angelo Sato knows his stuff, training in high-end yakitori restaurants in Fukuoka, Japan, as well as the likes of New York’s Eleven Madison Park and Restaurant Gordon Ramsay. His experience shows in the food, which mixes traditional yakitori (which rarely anoints the skewers with much more than salt, pepper and shichimi) with more modern ferments and flavoured oils. And while the menu may seem a little daunting at first (neck? Achilles? Knee and cartilage?), throw caution to the wind and order a skewer of each. This is not just expert grilling, but precise surgery too. Where you’ll find the real thrills in the more extreme parts of the chicken’s anatomy. Sure, the breast (with Japanese plum and shiso pepper) is outrageously soft and tender, lightly caressed by the Binchotan charcoal. And the fillet is equally luscious, with a nose-clearing hit of wasabi. We dispatch them in seconds. Along with pert pickles, which are the only non-chicken things we eat. Texture is every bit as important as taste – the cartilaginous crunch of that knee, the soft, lavish richness of the livers, the chew of the mixed offal, and the oyster’s plump succulence. Immaculate wings wear immaculately crisp skin. But such is the relentlessness of the skewer onslaught (and service here is divine), that after a while, we give up trying to remember which is tail, say, and which neck. And just feast in happy, greedy ignorance, our lips greasy with schmaltz. One thing, though, is abundantly clear. There’s absolutely nothing humble about this blessed bird. (Mail on Sunday)

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