After 109 days of temporary closure due to the effects of the novel coronavirus, thousands of pubs and restaurants in England opened last weekend. While the re-openings have been celebrated by many, others have suggested it’s still too soon for pubs and restaurants to re-open. After all, lockdown hasn’t been lifted – restrictions have just been loosened, as so many have struggled to grasp, mislead by the media.
But with such a lack of competent government guidance, who can blame people for rushing to embrace those glimmers of normality – providing we make sensible, responsible decisions. I didn’t leave the house at the weekend, as much as I’d love to have visited my favourite restaurants with some of my favourite people. I was excited, as though freshly released from a long prison sentence, but overwhelmed by anxiety. Pubs, restaurants and streets would be packed, like the supermarkets at the beginning of lockdown: people panic buying pints and cigarettes over eggs and toilet roll. Real pasta, rather than the dried kind that was stockpiled with fervour, quickly becoming rarer than a shiny Charizard. Moreover, I wanted my first restaurant meal in almost four months to be special.
Though many restaurants were quick to open their doors on Saturday 4th July, others have held off for a variety of complex reasons, mostly to adhere to strict safety guidelines for hospitality businesses, aiming to further prevent the spread of Covid-19. Many have referred to the process as the “new normal”.
A restaurant I’ve re-visited on various occasions, El Pastor re-opened on Tuesday 7th July, following its sister sites (Casa Pastor and Plaza Pastor in Coal Drops Yard). For the first time since opening in 2016, the restaurant is currently accepting reservations. Now is the time to take advantage of eating at some of London’s most exciting restaurants without having to queue. Walk-ins are also accommodated for the indoor or outdoor seats, with new Perspex screens surrounding the covered outdoor area. While not all staff members wear PPE equipment, hygiene is stressed. Immediately after guests leave, tables and chairs are cleaned and sanitised. A hand sanitiser dispenser is on-hand at the entrance, where diners’ temperatures are taken, as well as contact numbers. On opening night, we waited fewer than five minutes for a table, at around eight o’clock.
For the time being, the restaurant’s menu has also been shortened, though the classics remain available. The food is just as good as ever, and the service seems especially efficient. Food and drinks are delivered on trays, while cutlery is delivered in brown envelopes, like in standard Roman restaurants. El Pastor’s tacos are especially well suited to being eaten outside, under the London Bridge railway arches. The restaurant’s namesake tacos – ‘Al Pastor’ – are filled with slow-cooked pork shoulder, a salsa of avocado and Serrano chilli, diced onion, and glorious hunks of charred pineapple. Order at least two portions; they’re far too good to share.
Blue corn tostadas were topped with diced sashimi-grade yellowfin tuna, raw fish contrasting the crunch of the tostadas, enlivened further by chile de arbol and a generous helping of sesame. Baja tacos, on the other hand, harboured slivers of pollock cloaked with beer batter and expertly fried, joining pico de gallo and shredded cabbage which acted as a cushion for some of the fish’s residual oil. Soft shell crab tacos were similarly exemplary, with fried crab simply accompanied by a whisper of chipotle mayo, plus jicama and chayote slaw, ideally washed down with a michelada or a ‘Mezcarita’ – effectively a well-made margarita with Amores Mezcal Espadin in place of classic tequila. “Viva tacos!” the bill reads. Viva tacos, indeed.
Unexpectedly atmospheric, with consistently impressive food and accommodating-yet-unfussy service, this is a ‘new normal’ I could get on board with.
El Pastor can be found at 7A Stoney Street, London, SE1 9AA.