Besides the wax-stained bottles that hold flickering candles in Shrewsbury’s Lyon’s Den are new ornaments.
Bottles of hand sanitiser are a sign of the times as a restaurant that has worked hard to establish itself as a town favourite adopts to the Covid-19 era. It is not the only sign of the global pandemic.
Masked staff ensure that they neither transmit germs nor inhale those that others might have.
A one-way system means people face a longer walk to the toilets but avoid coming into contact with other customers.
There are ample supplies of hand sanitisers while staff keep a safe distance from tables when they are harvest orders or gingerly delivering food.
The owners at Lyon’s Den have clearly got the memo on the need to keep their staff and customers safe and score a straight ten when it comes to adherence to new regulations.
We live in the strangest of times and things are unlikely to improve significantly until a vaccine is approved and made widely available.
Spikes in infection send tremors of fear through communities while politicians see the devastating effects of economic contraction.
Jobs are being lost, people do not have the confidence to go out, money is too tight to mention and we are at the beginning of the worst economic downturn in all of our lifetimes.
Against that backdrop, restaurants are trying to survive. The Chancellor’s 15 per cent VAT relief scheme is immensely helpful and will boost margins by just enough to keep some operators afloat.
Other schemes to incentivise people to visit the hospitality sector will also prove fruitful, though they do not disguise the painful reality facing restaurant operators.
Vast swathes of the industry will not survive and the number of chefs retraining or waiters and waitresses looking for new jobs is truly frightening.
While such devastation is clear, it’s sobering to think that this section is not the hardest hit. Imagine what it’s like to be a theatre worker right now, or an employee in another similarly hard-hit sector, where there is no prospect of work until November, or, more likely, Easter next year.
While the tragedies of Covid are playing out right before our eyes, we must remember that things will inevitably get much, much worse before we start to see the green shoots.
We are still on a downwards curve.
Some, however, are fighting back: Lyon’s Den is among them.
By placing an unwavering focus on the measures required to keep people safe and to provide confidence to customers, they are at least able to trade.
During a busy midweek service, the atmosphere in Shrewsbury’s subterranean burger den was joyous.
People have already adapted to the current normal. They were polite and respectful of measures taken by restaurant staff to implement a health and safety policy.
In small booths, customers wore wide smiles and enjoyed the opportunity to step outside and live a little.
Buying a burger on a school night might not seem like the world’s greatest achievement, but after months of lockdown and staying at home, it’s a small step towards a town called 'Normal' and customers were glad to be moving in that direction.
There is a long way to go, of course.
The ever-present risk of further lockdowns remains and job insecurity coupled with the slow death of our High Streets means there has never been a more challenging time to be in business.
Just as High Street retailers have struggled in the face of competition from Amazon and other online retailers, so restaurants face similar competition from those delivering food to our doors.
Prior to Covid, such services were operated by a sometimes-motley bunch whose unhealthy takeaways catered to a slightly different demograph to those visiting restaurants.
Not any more.
There are numerous dine-at-home options where people can feast on beef-fat poached carrots, clotted cream mash, red wine reductions and beef wellingtons, if they so choose.
The choice has never been greater and it’s clear that the smartest operators will continue to provide couriered services for the foreseeable future.
The restaurant sector is remarkably inventive and such innovations are here to stay.
Lyon’s Den, however, ought to be okay, thankfully.
The burger bar set up by an operator who’d been inspired by a road trip to America has established itself on the county’s dining scene and should be sufficiently resilient to weather the storm.
It provides a point of difference to others in the town and has a loyal clientele who were out in full force during a bustling midweek service.
Pleasant service from a youthful team, food that is good quality without being spectacular, a convivial dining area and reasonable prices are among the attributes that will help it to survive.
My starter of chicken strips that had been fried in a crispy bread crumb coating and swishes with a piquant BBQ sauce made for happy eating.
Simple and unadventurous they may have been, but the sauce was pleasantly hot-and-sweet while the chicken remained tender and moist beneath its crunchy outer coating.
Served with a few pointless leaves, I imagine, as much as anything, they were there to fill an otherwise empty plate, it made for an appetising starter.
The burger moved things up a notch.
Served with two slices of perfectly crisp bacon, with fat that was crunchy and golden brown, rather than flaccid and pale, it had been slathered with cheese and was stacked high with sauces and pickles.
Served in a squidgy, slightly sweet brioche bun, the burger was still a little pink and delicious, flavoursome molten fat oozed as I cut into it.
It might not have scored full marks in Boris’ era of nationwide weight loss, but damn, it was tasty. Elvis would have ordered a second.
The twice-cooked fries were similarly unhealthy and just as delicious. Golden brown, crunchy and well seasoned with salt, they were the perfect accompaniment.
Thriving restaurants bring a smile back to many faces as we endure the strangest and most challenging time that many have known.
It ain’t easy being a restaurateur in such times – such places as Lyon’s Den need, and deserve, our support.
Chicken strips, £5.65
Classic burger with twice-cooked fries, £9.95
Big Texan burger with onion rings, Monterey Jack cheese and Jack Daniels sauce, £14.95
Vegan mushroom burger with twice-cooked fries, £11.95
Sides and salads
Greek salad, £9.50
Cheesy chips, £3.75
1 St Mary’s Water Lane, Shrewsbury SY1 2BX