Eating out is one of the bright sparks to look forward to this year

Let’s start with the good news. For the UK’s restaurant sector, 2021 will be better than 2020. This is only because, short of your actual Godzilla rising from the depths just off Folkestone at the same time as a chunky asteroid wilfully redirects itself to slam into, say, Birmingham, laying waste to everything within a 500-mile radius, it’s hard to imagine it being worse. And even then, it will only be better for the ones who have survived. A recent survey by various industry bodies found more than 70% of hospitality businesses expected to close, if the current Covid-19 restrictions stayed in place unchanged. We have already seen a number of casualties. Michel Roux Jr’s restaurant at Parliament Square has gone, for example and, as reported here recently, chef Mark Hix has seen his whole London restaurant group close.

Happy days. A look forward to the coming year should, of course, be full of lip-smacking accounts of twists on double-fried Korean chicken wings, deep dives into the compelling cooking styles of hitherto neglected regions of west Africa or India, or nerdy experiments with live fire cooking. And in the next 12 months, I hope there will be lots of that. A great meal out can also be an education.

But in looking ahead, it’s worth recalling the sign that was posted on the wall of Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential election campaign war room. It read “It’s the economy, stupid.” For restaurants everything about the coming year is about the economy. If you’re a well-capitalised restaurateur who survived the ravages of the past 12 months, then there may well be a sunny glow on the horizon. As one major player put it to me: “The first three months will be as bad as 2020. In the second three months, the cavalry are coming. The last six months are likely to be the best we’ve ever had.”

Predicting a boom may be the product of wishful thinking. Then again, the third decade of the last century was referred to as the Roaring Twenties for a good reason. After the ravages of a world war and then a pandemic much more fatal than Covid-19, there was a pent-up appetite for fun. Many in the business are confident that history will repeat itself. One of the great inequities of this pandemic is that, while millions were thrust into grinding poverty, many weren’t. Those who remained fully employed while working from home, often found their outgoings plummet. Not spending money on travelling into work could quickly stack up. Throw in the lack of weekday sandwich lunches – farewell to many city-centre Prets – and suddenly the bank balance is looking surprisingly plump.

There will be a desire to spend, which has to be good both for the economy in general and hospitality in particular. Neil Macleod of Mission Mars, the company behind Manchester’s Albert’s Schloss, a beer hall serving up crispy pork knuckles, bratwurst and hot and cold running drag queens, is certainly thinking like this. “A substantial volume of guests have sufficient confidence in the safety measures in place to make a visit,” he says. “And, together with the impact of vaccine availability, that builds confidence that there will be strong demand come spring.” Hence, they have expansion plans. Last summer they managed to open Zumhof in Digbeth, Birmingham. In the coming year they have eyes on venues in Leeds and Newcastle.

Meanwhile in London, Wolseley operators Corbin & King will finally be able to open their long-delayed relaunch of the Manzi’s name, with a seafood brasserie off Soho Square they describe as “fun and affordable”. Fruits de mer and moules all round. There’s also big investment promised for fancy food court ventures. The company behind Scottish restaurant and butchery company Mac & Wild is opening a 16,000sqft site boasting eight restaurant brands in the new Edinburgh St James development. In Manchester, the Escape to Freight Island site, which opened last year with multiple food outlets, has announced £2m of new investment, and the City of London will see the UK’s first outpost of Eataly, with 40,000sqft of Italian food outlets.

The real challenge for many such businesses is that they are often in city centres, places many of us have lost a habit of visiting. Footfall may return, but it will take time. So let me make one positive prediction: we will see a rise in intriguing new ventures by young chefs in the suburbs. As restaurateur Jeremy King put it recently in an interview with the Big Hospitality website: “There are going to be an awful lot of empty spaces… and I’m hoping they will give all the amazing new chefs and restaurateurs the chance to do something.” I’m already hearing that rents outside city centres have plummeted due to a lack of demand.

I don’t know what any of them will be, but here are some new ventures that are definitely upcoming in 2021. Sam and Georgie Pearman, who already run two food pubs, will reopen the Double Red Duke in the Oxfordshire village of Kelmscott, with the assistance of Richard Turner, a veteran of Pitt Cue and Hawksmoor. Expect a charcoal grill working overtime and a killer steak and kidney pudding with oyster and bone marrow gravy. And you can’t keep Mark Hix down for long. He’s reopening the Fox Inn at Corscombe, Dorset, a sister business to his Oyster and Fish House at Lyme Regis. He’s promising rabbit brawn with piccalilli and a gamekeeper’s hotpot.

Graeme Cheevers, who won a Michelin star while head chef of the Isle of Eriska Hotel, says he’s hoping to do it again at Unalome in Glasgow on what was the Sisters restaurant. Chef Emily Scott will see her pop-up at the Watergate Bay Hotel in Cornwall go permanent from March with a seafood and plant-based menu, including the likes of roasted scallops with truffle butter, and buffalo mozzarella panna cotta with basil and tomatoes. And back in London there’s a brave plan to relaunch the once legendary Langan’s Brasserie.

It’s a random selection, but proof that, despite it all, there remains a willingness to try. That’s a cause for optimism. Because restaurants don’t just feed us and bring us together. As well as providing serious careers, the hospitality industry has historically been a source of mass employment. It provides temporary jobs for people working on other things: students paying their way through university, actors between jobs, painters struggling over their art. Restaurants, hotels and pubs are part of an economic web that helps underpin our very cultural life. There are many reasons why we need the hospitality industry to fight its way back to good health in 2021; a good dinner is only one of them.