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May 17 lockdown easing: What it was like to head indoors again on the stroke of midnight

·2-min read
<p>Cutting it fine: Hippodrome CEO Simon Thomas took a pair of bolt-cutters to the doors of the famous casino</p> (Jeff Moore)

Cutting it fine: Hippodrome CEO Simon Thomas took a pair of bolt-cutters to the doors of the famous casino

(Jeff Moore)

Even for me, this was keen: cycling in the flooding rain for the promise of finally eating indoors again.

The centre of town has shaken itself down and is ready to get going: on the corner of Covent Garden, Balthazar was glowing orange after months dark. Nearby, since November the windows of French brasserie Le Garrick have read ‘We’ll meet again’. Now the glass has been scrubbed clean as the promise comes true.

Keenest of all to open was the Hippodrome, the Leicester Square behemoth where, on the stroke of midnight, owner Simon Thomas stood brandishing a pair of bolt cutters, ready to break the door’s chain in front of a queue that stretched the length of the building.

If the ceremonial opening didn’t quite prelude a stampede – “Track and trace does limit that glorious rush,” Thomas noted wryly – soon the casino was busy with regulars heading to their favourite tables. The Hippodrome means something to these people: the man first in line had been queuing for more than two hours to make sure he didn’t miss out. By three minutes past midnight, the fruit machines were filling, by five past, blackjack tables were buzzing and by quarter past the first cry of victory echoed through the building, from a game of dice.

But I was here to eat. Al fresco dining has helped restaurants work up to match fitness and claw back some much-needed cash, but eating inside is what restaurants are all about – dining rooms help us escape the world, and isolate us from more than the weather. Thomas says they used lockdown to help fine tune the casino’s Heliot Steak House; “I sat down to try 23 courses the other day,” he said, “It’s a hard life, but…”.

Soon a burger appeared, plates of lamb meatballs and deep-fried everything, a glass of Champagne. A late supper, but one worth waiting for: among happy sorts laughing, chattering and cheersing their drinks, all I could think was: God, it’s good to come in from the cold.

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