From the Coalface: Stephen Harris on sky-high prices and empty restaurants
Published 31 May 2023

Credit: The Sportsman

Good Food Guide reporters tell of quiet restaurants and sky-high prices. Stephen Harris, chef-proprietor of The Sportsman in Whitstable explains why.

I can remember having a discussion about the price of eating out with a good customer back in 2015 and he quoted the price of eating at The Fat Duck – around £250 a head for the food, payable upfront, with the balance for drinks, coffee and water to be paid on the day (currently dinner is priced at £395). Although I had to agree that £250 was a lot for a meal, I did justify it by quoting the cost of eating at a three Michelin starred restaurant in Paris. That £250 would barely have covered the cost of a main course. It seemed that in the UK we were not willing to pay the very high amounts that were demanded by three-star restaurants in Paris.

Now here we are in 2023 and most top restaurants will cost around £300 a head, with many other well-regarded places costing up to £200 a head. It is a huge and shocking change which has left me and many of my restaurant going friends questioning whether we can afford to eat in top restaurants now, whereas in the past we wouldn’t have hesitated.

The answer to what has changed since then is obvious. It is too easy to see the pandemic as just an interlude between then and now, but the effects have been seismic. I was surprised when looking back on the last three years at how many changes restaurants have had to deal with and the effect that this has had.

For me, the first lockdown was almost welcome as it meant a break from the constant running of a business – as long as the furlough and a good landlord were around it didn’t threaten the business. The problem came on reopening and trying to work within the guidelines. The situation was so changeable in those few months between the two lockdowns, we had to operate in a way we had never done before: a person greeting customers at the door, printed menus, and no drinkers. We changed to a five-course menu with choices at each course and a set price of £65. This meant no groups gathering at the blackboards or the bar. I felt like we had stopped being a pub and had become a rural restaurant.

And we had to deal with a 10pm curfew, possibly the most stupid idea (especially in London), ‘eat out to help out’, and the ‘tier system’ which saw a second lockdown from November 2020 in Kent, two months before everyone else.

When we eventually reopened in the summer of 2021, after that second seven-month lockdown, the future was uncertain but there was a huge feeling of goodwill for restaurants and a pent-up demand to go out. Months of sitting at home meant that people were determined to go out and enjoy themselves. I remember sitting in my coat and scarf, freezing cold in pub gardens, just happy to be out and eating lunch.

It seems that restaurants used this situation to remodel themselves, particularly where price was concerned. Reopening into a staffing crisis, with food costs also rising, meant that many places had to offer much higher staff wages and better working conditions. Some would no longer cater for allergies and dietary requirements (and two years on, many have not gone back to their pre-pandemic policies). But the compensation was that everyone was busy and customers were happy to pay the price.

I think a lot of restaurateurs misread the temporary nature of the situation in 2021-2. The goodwill lasted all year and the prices rose and rose because it seemed that the demand was endless.

Then, towards the end of 2022, the headlines began to change and suddenly it was the ‘cost of living crisis’. People’s fuel bills rose, food prices rocketed, and then mortgages and rents were hiked. I know people who are dealing with rises of over £500 a month to their costs.

Somehow, we are left with a classic squeeze. The cost of going to most restaurants has rocketed and the amount of spare money in the customers’ pockets has plummeted.

This can only lead to one thing – empty or closed restaurants. I have noticed how many restaurants are now advertising (usually on Instagram) availability all week when before the pandemic, and in 2021-22, they were full pretty much all of the time. Some are back pedalling on price hikes by trying to offer cheaper lunch menus or even special discounted menus to celebrate an anniversary. Some have tried to drop their prices back down and hope nobody notices.

So far, I have been surprised by how resilient restaurants have been. Although there have been closures, it has not been at the rate which I expected, but this squeeze has only been going on for a few months and only time will tell.

One of my golden rules of running a restaurant is to be really careful about pricing. Everyone remembers the prices going up but nobody notices when they go down. One of my chefs was in a taxi the other day and the driver asked why it was £400 for a meal at The Sportsman. It’s not remotely true (it’s actually £80) but it sent a chill down my spine. If people start believing this then we could be in trouble despite having spent the last three years carefully managing a really difficult and constantly changing situation.