If a week is a long time in politics, it feels like an eternity in the restaurant game.
At the start of last week, restaurants were full as wave after wave of customers flooded into our towns and cities on the back of the feel-good factor created by Rishi Sunak’s Eat Out To Help Out.
There was a mood of optimism, buoyancy, even, that the hospitality sector could work its way back into the game.
After the horrors of spring and early summer, the green shoots of recovery – or should that be pea shoots of recovery – were being served on most restaurant’s a la carte.
Fast forward a week and the world has tilted on its axis. Local lockdowns are upon us, from Wolverhampton to Sandwell and further into Birmingham.
Towns and cities are empty as most – but not all – obey the Government’s instruction for us to stay home.
As the infection rate grows, our restaurants empty and those who were already struggling to stay afloat are gazing out at a sea of empty tables.
It’s at times like these you find out who your friends are. The regulars upon which all restaurants depend are those who keep businesses afloat.
Passing trade, business lunches and walk-ins have pretty much fallen off a cliff – in the space of a week.
There are restaurants locally who’ve been pretty much full each lunch and dinner since they re-opened in July.
It’s been boom time as pent-up demand and a desire to return to normality has unleashed a wave of spending.
Now, however, we’re back where we were just before lockdown.
People are reluctant to go out, those with dinner reservations are calling ahead to cancel, customers are unwilling to travel and the small gains that were made over summer are very rapidly being eroded.
Being a restaurateur is tough at the best of times. You rely on an integrated supply chain that can go wrong at any time, the fickle guests can vent their spleen – whether justified, or, more usually, unjustified – on any number of social media channels or every-man review sites and then there’s the staff, the tax bills, the small margins, the admin, the book-keeping.
You know the drill. Add a pandemic into the mix and it becomes nigh-on impossible.
On a hot late summer/early autumn day in Britain’s Second City, there should be floods of people.
Shopping areas ought to be full and restaurants ought to be making money, rather than losses.
But these are Corona Times and we’re heading into a second wave that will upset the apple cart.
Our leading scientists are providing reasonable advice, that respiratory illnesses will thrive during the coming six months and we’re in for the longest, harshest winter since 1973’s Winter Of Discontent.
Job losses, business failures, the loss of civil liberties, instability and worse have become the new normal.
Still, we should take heart.
Amid the gloom, there’s always Thai spare ribs and Takrai Hed mushrooms. To whit: Sabai Sabai.
On the fringes of the Black Country and Birmingham, in the space where communities are told to socially distance, lie a group of Thai restaurants. Sabai Sabai have outlets in Harborne and Moseley, as well as Birmingham City Centre and further south, in Stratford-Upon-Avon. Which will be nice, if ever we’re allowed to go on day trips again.
Roll on 2021.
Promising a true taste of Thailand – don’t all Thai restaurants promise that? Sabai Sabai offers all the usuals (wings, dips, rolls, curries et al) as well as a number of more interesting dishes.
So, for instance, chicken liver is served wok fried in garlic and pepper with fresh baby leaf spinach and crispy garlic. New Zealand green shell mussels are wok fried in a delicious Thai garlic and pepper sauce.
Scallops are pan fried in butter and served in a Thai white wine and lemongrass sauce, garnished with fresh cress.
There are also fantastic salads, fresh with papaya, spicy with chilly, crisp with duck and packed with intrigue with whole fried soft shell crab.
When I called into Birmingham City Centre’s branch for a mid-week, unplanned lunch, the new lockdown measures were just kicking in.
The Second City was enduring a return of all of its worst nightmares.
Two middle aged pals were taking forever to sink pints of lager in one corner, having wrapped up their lunch, while the waiter was darting this way and that, checking his mobile phone in a room downstairs while running the sparse tables.
Covid brings desperate times.
The food was terrific. A chicken satay starter provided a delicious and fiery satay sauce, a sweet dip and tender-cooked chicken fillets.
Well-presented, cooked with skill and generously served, it was a reminder of why the chain has grown and grown and that value is available on every plate.
My main was a rich Panang sauce with coconut milk, kaffir lime leaves, sweet peppers and red chillies.
Served with tender, super-thin slices of chicken, it was exemplary cooking from a chef with considerable skill.
A small timbale of rice provided starch that soaked up the sauce and there was pleasing heat in Panang. Good work, chef.
The restaurant manager was polite and attentive, though serving three in a restaurant at lunchtime probably wasn’t his idea of excitement.
The bill, incidentally, was eminently reasonable, with the main costing a fairly-priced £14.95.
Hospitality is the UK’s third largest sector. Rishi Sunak has done extraordinarily well to keep so many business afloat, by introducing furlough and initiating the Eat Out To Help Out scheme.
Those promotions have come to an end just as we head into a second wave and the fate of so many restaurants is now in the hands of those who matter most – the locals.
Sabai Sabai deserves to last the course.
It offers food that’s a cut above most local Thai restaurants and though the interior was a little too plastic-ey – too many fake plants when real ones would have been more welcome – it’s here for the long term.
Vegetable tempura, £7.45
Golden bags, £7.95
Thai spare ribs, £7.95
Roasted tamarind duck, £16.95
Sirloino with Thai herbs, £21.50
Jumbo prawns with Tom Yam sauce, £19.95
Yellow beef curry, £14.95
Prawn jungle curry, £15.95
Chicken green curry, £14.95
7 Waterloo Street, Birmingham, B2 5PG
0121 448 3850