If it a week is a long time in politics, it feels like an eternity in the restaurant game.
At the start of last week, restaurants were full as wave after wave of customers flooded into our towns and cities on the back of the feel-good factor created by Rishi Sunak’s Eat Out To Help Out.
There was a mood of optimism, buoyancy, even, that the hospitality sector could work its way back into the game.
After the horrors of spring and early summer, the green shoots of recovery – or should that be pea shoots of recovery – were being served on most restaurant’s a la carte.
Fast forward a week and the world has tilted on its axis. Local lockdowns are upon us, from Wolverhampton to Sandwell and further into Birmingham.
Towns and cities are empty as most – but not all – obey the Government’s instruction for us to stay home. As the infection rate grows, our restaurants empty and those who were already struggling to stay afloat are gazing out at a sea of empty tables.
Happily, in sleepy Shropshire, things are no so parlous as in more populous urban areas.
Nonetheless, it’s at times like these you find out who your friends are. The regulars upon which all restaurants depend are those who keep businesses afloat. Passing trade, business lunches and walk-ins have pretty much fallen off a cliff – in the space of a week.
There are restaurants locally who’ve been pretty much full each lunch and dinner since they re-opened in July.
It’s been boom time as pent-up demand and a desire to return to normality has unleashed a wave of spending.
Now, however, we’re back where we were just before lockdown.
People are reluctant to go out, those with dinner reservations are calling ahead to cancel, customers are unwilling to travel and the small gains that were made over summer are very rapidly being eroded.
Being a restaurateur is tough at the best of times.
You rely on an integrated supply chain that can go wrong at any time, the fickle guests can vent their spleen – whether justified, or, more usually, unjustified – on any number of social media channels or every-man review sites and then there’s the staff, the tax bills, the small margins, the admin, the book-keeping.
You know the drill. Add a pandemic into the mix and it becomes nigh-on impossible.
On a hot late summer/early autumn day in Shropshire, business will still brisk for The New Inn, at Baschurch, one of the county’s most venerable and popular destinations.
Though respiratory illnesses will thrive during the coming six months and we’re in for the longest, harshest winter since 1973’s Winter Of Discontent, you get the feeling that much of that will go unnoticed by the gentle folk in rural Shropshire.
Job losses, business failures, the loss of civil liberties, instability and worse have become the new normal, but in Baschurch a pint or a nice dinner for two will remain part of the normal order.
Hospitality is the UK’s third largest sector. Rishi Sunak has done extraordinarily well to keep so many business afloat, by introducing furlough and initiating the Eat Out To Help Out scheme.
Those promotions have come to an end just as we head into a second wave and the fate of so many restaurants is now in the hands of those who matter most – the locals.
Which is why The New Inn and others like it are better placed than their big city counterparts.
Farmers, commuters, home workers and more filled the tables and bar on what ought to have been a quiet midweek evening.
The New Inn is a well run pub. Smart owners and good staff make it unsurprising that it’s all over the detail in this age of Covid security.
So upon arrival, I was asked to provide a name and phone number, in the event of test-and-trace being necessary.
There was hand sanitiser to minimise the risk to others, visible social distancing and a one-way system, with separate entrances and exits.
While some pubs and restaurants cut corners, The New Inn demonstrates its respect for the local community and its determination to avoid being responsible for an outbreak.
That, of course, is the way all establishments should behave.
In the kitchen was a chef who once spoke loftily of ambitious to secure Michelin accreditation but who now contents himself by serving some of the best burgers, fish and chips and other at-home dishes in the county.
Chris Conde for a little while talked of burning ambition but has become more moderate with age. Though the menu leaves less opportunity for him to dazzle, his modest work cuts the mustard.
I started with the simplest of dishes: a Spanish-style dish of hot and sweet roquito peppers with tomato passata and chorizo.
The sweetness of the peppadew peppers was magnificent and perfectly allied to the sweet tomato sauce and the warm, small chunks of chorizo.
Toasted wholemeal pitas were served to mop up the sauce. Simple but delicious.
The main was equally uncomplicated. A sizzling Cajun chicken dish with enough peppers to sink a market stall was served with basmati rice, an elegantly dressed salad and more pita.
What is it with the New Inn and pita? You don’t see pita breads for years and then they all come at once.
Service was terrific.
The restaurant manager was first rate, a youthful waitress just as impressive. Eager to please but unintrusive, both were exceptional.
Chris Conde’s food was a lot simpler than the dishes earning him a nod from Michelin at Shrewsbury’s Henry Tudor House, though dishes were well presented and cooked with precision.
The New Inn remains one of Shropshire’s premier pub-restaurants.
Serving a range of much-loved ales in a Covid-secure environment with friendly staff and sensible prices, it ticks most of the boxes that people might expect.
It’s reassuringly familiar, pleasingly unchanged.
Soup of the day, £5.50
Pressed ham hock with quail Scotch egg, £7.50
Pan fried wild mushrooms with fried duck egg, £6.50
New Inn steak burger with slaw and chips, £12.50
Teriyaki beef sizzling skillet, £13
Parma ham and pineapple pizza, £11.50
Lemon tart, £5.50
Vanilla cheesecake, £6
Sweet Belgian waffle, £5.50
The New Inn
Church Road, Baschurch, Shrewsbury SY4 2EF