A short, distanced wait at the door while the booking was checked, escorted in by a masked waiter, sat at a table big enough for King Arthur’s knights, menus accessed by QR Code, and we were good to go. The nearest customer was about ten yards away and the hush was more like Morningside Library on Tuesday afternoon than Friday night in a big boozer.
A couple of beers, and a bottle of wine with dinner, and before you could say “Shall we have a nightcap at the Canny’s” it was after 9.30 and with it the polite warning we would have to be out by 10pm.
Now, with Edinburgh firmly clamped down in Tier 3, booze is banned, everywhere shuts at 6pm and our one night out in nine months now feels like unbridled hedonism. But while it might be irritating not being able to meet friends for a pint, the hospitality sector and its suppliers face catastrophe at the prospect of the new Prohibition lasting until Easter.
Hundreds of premises across Scotland are on the brink of permanent closure, taking thousands of jobs with them, and all Nicola Sturgeon can say is she is “scunnered” at having to maintain restrictions.
Unfortunately, scunnered doesn’t pay the bills or explain why good businesses which invested in improved facilities and staff training have to bear the brunt of the Scottish government’s tactics. Nor does scunnered gloss over the absence of data to prove that well-run pubs and restaurants contributed significantly to the second infection wave.
At least now the prospect of vaccines lifting the siege is real, but like the families of soldiers killed on November 10, 1918, it will be no comfort to those who lose their livelihoods. And scunnered won’t begin to describe the feeling of those who see their once-profitable premises snapped up by opportunists in the inevitable fire-sale of distressed assets which the end of lockdown will surely herald.
McLaren’s is part of the Signature Pubs chain run by Nic Wood, who with other members of the Scottish Hospitality group has launched a petition to persuade the Scottish government to agree a six-point survival plan, including longer hours. Significantly, they’re not seeking to sell alcohol, even though the drinks mark-up makes the difference between a thriving business and a charity.
Just to break even is all Mr Wood is asking. "We spent so much money before the July reopening trying to be as safe as possible,” he told Edinburgh Live. “We moved to restrict gatherings to six people from two households, then complied with the music ban, then finally they just told people not to go back to bars any more… it's like the government have a basic inability to understand us as an industry.”
He’s hardly alone, and across Edinburgh businesses large and small are wondering if national and local administrations truly understand and value what they do. As Mr Wood said, “We need to be left with an economy and industry at the end of all this."