Back to all articles
  • Jancis Robinson
Written by
  • Jancis Robinson
30 Sep 2001

As well as an attack on humanity, the destruction of the North Tower of the World Trade Centre has proven to be a body blow to the worldwide restaurant industry.

The 106th and 107th floors of this building used to contain the Windows on the World restaurant with its extraordinary wine cellar, the Greatest Bar on Earth and banqueting facilities being used that morning for a breakfast for a UK company, Risk Waters Group. And like any restaurant anywhere it included an international workforce, two of whose Muslim staff are amongst the missing whilst the executive chef was fortunate to survive - he was on the ground floor buying a new pair of spectacles.

Nor could the timing of this disaster have been worse. Putting on one side particular economic problems, such as foot-and-mouth disease in the UK, rising electricity costs in California which have led many restaurateurs to impose surcharges to meet rising operational costs, and the collapse of so many free spending dot com companies worldwide, September is a crucial month in any restaurant's trading calendar.

For the established it is an opportunity to reverse the losses of an invariably quiet August; for the newcomers - and September and October are the busiest months for restaurant openings in the the run up to Christmas and the New Year - it is the opportunity to garner those initial reviews that can bring in customers and cash flow. And British restaurateurs normally view the second week of September with some trepidation as it coincides with the beginning of the school term and a temporary drop in dinner reservations. One very experienced and industrious restaurant manageress reported that on 14 September business was so quiet that she did something she had never done before and went home early.

The August issue of Food Arts, an American restaurant trade monthly, had already carried an article entitled 'Bear Essentials' reporting how American restaurateurs were responding to tougher times by redoubling staff training programmes, removing dishes from menus that were just not selling and concentrating on fixed price deals. The restaurant column in the New York Times on 5 September was headed 'Today's Special? Discounts and Coupons all Round' and, whilst their London counterparts remained slightly if temporarily immune, an imminent slowdown was obvious - one major wholesaler reported that his daily deliveries were down by almost 50 per cent during August.

The financial consequences of 11 September have been immediate if not quite immediately obvious. All the London restaurateurs and chefs I have spoken to reported swift cancellations of most if not all the private reception and diningroom bookings they held, whether there was an American connection or not. And this is unquestionably the most profitable part of any restaurant business. Others have reported, not surprisingly in these uncertain times, that not as many bookings are being taken so far in advance.

Yet there have been signals ever since lunchtime on 11 September that this crisis has allowed restaurateurs to find a new role, in fact not so much a new role as a return to their original identity back in the 17th century. Then the profession found its name because the bowls of soup French restaurants dispensed restored to health French travellers physically bruised and battered on their journey by coach and horses. In the past fortnight many restaurateurs have been fulfilling a similar role for their emotionally shattered clientèle.

As Danny Meyer, New York's most respected restaurateur, emailed on 12 September, 'We are closed for business in all our four restaurants but open for the community. Each one of the restaurants is cooking and delivering food to fire houses, police stations, hospitals, shelters and makeshift offices. The doors to each restaurant are opened for community members who just need a place to be. Yesterday, a couple reunited at the Union Square Café, he having just escaped from the 51st floor of the World Trade Centre.'

Initially, many customers in the UK were divided between throwing caution to the wind in the face of such events - several restaurateurs reported higher than normal sales of champagne and fine wine in the immediate aftermath - and guilt at enjoyment in the face of such suffering. When dinner reservations sank to three one evening at his restaurant, Cucina, in north London, Vernon Mascherenas decided to act.

'I made my à la carte dinner menu £15 for three courses,' he explaind, 'regardless of what anyone chooses, a saving of 30-50 per cent, until the end of September and we have been serving 70-80 customers ever since. Everyone needed somehwere to share their shock and relief if they did not know anyone involved and these lower prices assuages their guilt, makes them feel comfortable about coming out. As I wander the tables there is only one topic of conversation on everyone's lips.'

Judging from the full house brought in by an excellent value £14.95 three-course Sunday lunch at the recently opened restaurant, The French Table, in Surbiton, Surrey, this combination of value, comfort and care carries the same appeal for those in south London. As those who used to work for dot.com companies have deserted designer bars for cheaper pubs and made lattes last an hour now our emotional needs may lead us away from the larger, more impersonal restaurants and heighten the particular charms of the more personal, neighbourhood restaurants.

Perhaps because he is so close to the suffering Meyer was remarkably succinct in another email earlier this week. 'Our restaurants, amongst the city's most popular, down 40-70 per cent. Many others are closing, suspending business indefinitely, laying off workers, delaying openings or cancelling new projects altogether. But I am cautiously optimistic that we will emerge okay, since people understand that restaurants are ultimately a haven of nurturing and nourishment of the human soul - which we need a lot of these days.'