An Arab favourite fears London lockdown

Al Waha in Notting Hill may fold if new Covid restrictions keep it closed until end of year

Mohammad Antabli, General Manager of Alwaha Restaurant in Westbourne Grove London. Photographed for TheNational. Calligraphy by Mouneer Al-Shaarani

Mohammad Antabli is one of London’s most indefatigable restaurateurs, heading up the prominent Lebanese restaurant Al Waha for more than two decades.

But even he fears that the latest lockdown, which from Thursday will plunge restaurants and bars into hibernation once more, could be too much for his business to endure.

Oscar-winning actor Colin Firth once said Al Waha was his favourite Lebanese restaurant and still visits from time to time. David Cameron, Britain’s prime minister from 2010 to 2015, who lives in Notting Hill, is another who frequents since stepping down from high office.

Alwaha Restaurant in Westbourne Grove London. Photographed for TheNational.

But despite its reputation, circumstances may make keep the restaurant alive impossible.

“All my faithful customers are writing to me and saying ‘our heart really is with you at the moment’,” said Mr Antabli.

He admits there might be no way for him to continue if the shutdown lasts longer than a month, a prospect suggested by senior government minister Michael Gove.

The ailing British hospitality industry is braced for the impact of a new shutdown, as the government desperately tries get a grip on the infection rate before Christmas and the annual increase in hospital admissions during winter.

However, it could be the tipping point for many who clung on through the first wave hoping to recover once restrictions were lifted.

Even a four-week shutdown could be too much for many businesses, with Chancellor Rishi Sunak warning today that there would be many more job losses on top of the 750,000 already put out of work by Covid-19.

UK Hospitality, the industry’s main trade body, said the second lockdown would hit harder than the first even if the extension of a government furlough scheme provides some relief to workers who cannot be kept on for a month.

Recent restrictions – such as restaurants being forced to close at 10pm and different households banned from mixing inside – had already increased the strain and seen trading take a fresh hit.

“To be honest, it is touch and go, it depends how much longer they’re going to have this lockdown for. If it is going to be more than four weeks and it’s going to linger until Christmas, there is no way that we could survive or save the business at all,” Mr Antabli said on Monday, two days after the new restrictions were announced.

Mohammad Antabli, General Manager of Alwaha Restaurant in Westbourne Grove London. Photographed for TheNational. Calligraphy by Mouneer Al-Shaarani

Al Waha, open for 23 years, has established itself as a stalwart in Notting Hill’s Westbourne Grove but has found itself stricken by a virus that has already forced some restaurants to shut their doors for good.

Mr Antabli says he was already struggling before the new lockdown was announced and was about to let four members of staff go before the government extended the furlough scheme.

Mr Antabli, who is originally from Syria, has lived through three recessions in his 43 years in the business, but says he has never experienced the uncertainty taking place right now.

“The impact of Covid-19 has been absolutely terrible on the restaurant, without any doubt. We had to go into complete shutdown for almost three-and-a-half months and the furlough for the people was better than nothing but it was still really hard for them,” he said.

“It is very tough, I’ve never come across anything like it in my whole life.’

He has had to personally take on tasks he has not done in 40 years, such as washing up and cleaning the restaurant and toilets.

Despite a slight recovery when Al Waha was able to reopen and lockdown measures were eased, even the tiered restrictions brought in by the government in October after another surge in infections led to renewed fears for the restaurant’s future.

London found itself at Tier-2, meaning restaurants had to close at 10pm and only people from the same household could sit together inside.

Research published in mid-October by UK Hospitality predicted more than 750,000 jobs would be lost against figures from February 2020 without greater government support, although this data was released before the extension of the furlough scheme.

In central London’s Fitzrovia, the effect of the pandemic has also been felt by Itamar Srulovich, who co-owns restaurant Honey & Co, the grillhouse Honey & Smoke, and food shop Honey & Spice.

The company lost “a lot of staff”, although the blow was somewhat softened for Mr Srulovich and his wife and business partner, Sarit Packer, because they also have an online shop.

“We sell a lot of cookies and baked goods online and that just went through the roof, especially during lockdown. We just could not make enough cookies. We have a really amazing pastry section and we were just exploding,” said Mr Srulovich, who was born in Jerusalem.

It also allowed them to expedite a long-held dream of running a falafel shop, as one of their restaurants was converted to also serve a range of takeaway food.

All their restaurants are back up and running, but Mr Srulovich says it has still been a very difficult time.

“It’s depressing for the team. People are very, very nervous, very, very stressed. A lot of people have lost their jobs, a lot of people are nervous about their future. We feel that anxiety.”

Mr Antabli said that even before the new lockdown was announced, the restrictions in London had greatly affected business, with the arrival of colder winter weather only increasing the strain.

Even if they are allowed to reopen in December, if restrictions are still in place it could prove impractical.

Alwaha Restaurant in Westbourne Grove London. Photographed for TheNational. Calligraphy by Mouneer Al-Shaarani

“Now with the weather, it’s very cold, people are not going to sit outside. It’s going to be very difficult to serve them outside because sometimes it’s raining, sometimes it’s windy, sometimes it’s cold. Opening the door and coming in and out of the restaurant, it will make you sick. And you don’t want that, you don’t want to have flu, you don’t want to have a cold at this time.”

Mr Antabli said the surrounding uncertainty was making planning very difficult.

“On one side you think ‘if I pump more money into it and borrow money, is it going to be worth it, when is it going to end, how long is it going to take, will I be able to pay my debts back to the bank?’”

“So you can’t really plan because nobody knows anything. You don’t know when this Covid is going to finish.”