Who knows when we’ll return. Boris told us the start of next month, then his real second-in-command, Gove, told us it could be whenever. We’re going with the latter option.
Let’s face it, they told us back in Spring it would all be over within 12 weeks and look where we are now. As The Who sang: We won’t get fooled again.
Which means our restaurants continue to face an uncertain future as the nation battles to bring down the R rate and they battle to pay their rent and keep on staff. Such areas as Bennetts Hill, in Birmingham, are deserted, though once they were thronged with crowds.
Bennetts Hill is one of the region’s best places to eat if you’re looking for mid-range, reasonably cheap and very cheerful food. Filled with a mixture of pleasant chains and independents and within a short walk of other restaurants, it provides the world on a plate. From The Indian Streatery and it’s Mumbai-centric snacks to Bodega Cantina, with its South American food and drinks. There are burgers, there are cocktails, there is food of every description.
Pizza fares pretty well on Bennetts Hill, with the brilliantly conceived Rudy’s occupying a vast space and serving great, Italian-style food at economic prices. The similarly popular Franco Manca sits pretty much opposite, offering a choice of destination for discerning lovers of the classic Italian slice.
Pre-lockdown – that’s post-spring lockdown and pre-autumn lockdown – it tends to do a roaring trade. Let’s both hope and assume it continues to do so once lockdown is lifted and people can resume to some sort of normality. Not that many would consider it normal to enter a restaurant wearing a mask and sanitise hands before sitting down, but we are where we are.
In terms of Covid-19 compliance – and these things are important – Franco Manca smashes it out of the park. It’s devised its own queue nearby app, so that people can let the restaurant know where they are and when they plan to arrive. Such technology has become necessary for restaurants that don’t do bookings and instead rely on walk-ins. You simply tap in a quick message, the restaurant picks it up and you’re placed in a virtual queue, so that you can arrive just as the table has been set and the staff are ready for you. Ingenious.
Staff wear PPE, adopting that ‘I might be an NHS worker, I might be a waitress’ look for which 2020 will forever be remembered. It makes them safer, most importantly, and also provides reassurance for guests who don’t want to pick up anything unpleasant while sitting down for a negroni.
There are large plastic screens to separate different tables. They’re spaced a sensible distance between tables, so those of a nervous disposition or who might be prone to claustrophobia need not fret. Rather, they should take heart that a restaurant has adopted safe and sensible measures that serve to reassure and keep people safe in this era of instability and change.
There are hand sanitising stations as customers enter – of course there are – and QR codes at the door. Numbers and names of guests are taken in the event that they need to be contacted about cross contamination.
In many ways, people will have more confidence in the restaurant’s own systems rather than the flawed and dysfunctional ones operated by HM Government. But I digress.
I phoned ahead, to make sure the restaurant wasn’t too busy and I’d be able to walk-in for a midweek lunch, just before Lockdown 2: The Sequel. I ended up being the first person there, having the place to myself, alongside two front of house staff and a pizza chef. Not that the splendid isolation lasted long. Not withstanding the general public’s reluctance to eat out, the venue was pretty soon buzzing as lunchtime workers and shoppers, students and couples descended on Franco’s.
Clearly, those people have considerable taste, for the food and service were both of a decent standard: the prices absurdly low.
We’re not doing negative reviews during Covid-19. What’s the point. Businesses are already on their backsides and we don’t want to be responsible for pushing them over the edge.
Recently, we visited another pizzeria, modesty forbids us from revealing its location or name, which may well have been closer to home for some of our Black Country readers.
The intention was to reflect on a popular local joint, perhaps get the phone ringing if things were looking good. They weren’t. Sullen service – a woman who pointed to the table – and an angry chef who refused to provide a VAT bill and, I thought, was measuring me up with his right fist, a meal that led to a three-day spell in the bathroom, if you catch my drift, and a chaotic service that meant four other guests were served before us led me to this conclusion: let’s not review this one, let’s put it down to experience and assume that other readers will also vote with their feet, as we will in the case of a venue that might have been lucky to score half a star.
When it takes 53 minutes to pop a dough ball topped with tomato and cheese into the oven, you know you’re in trouble.
Rather than reflect on that horror show, therefore, we found somewhere better, which was Franco Manca, so that we could recommend somewhere decent, rather than wasting the space on an undeserving cowboy.
We’re glad we did, for food, service and atmosphere were all tip top. There was an offer on for pizzas, pegging prices back to a fiver, so for a starter, huge main and drink, my bill came to just over a tenner. I know, ridonkulous.
Staff were friendly and polite, the bresaola starter was a treat with plenty of parmesan and rocket over tender, unctuous beef while the sourdough pizza was thrilling; leaving me pleasantly stuffed like the crusts from another restaurant.
Times are tough in restaurant land but the best will survive and during Lockdown 2: The Sequel, they’re offering take out, click and collect and other ways to eat. It’s up to those who can to support them if possible, without that, they face an uncertain future. And in Franco Manca’s case, there’s every reason to tuck in.