Edinburgh's new St James Quarter can be a beacon of hope (despite my Titantic fears) – Stephen Jardine

Launching Edinburgh’s new St James Quarter in the current climate might feel like offering £10 off dinner on the Titanic just after it hit the iceberg, but it does offer hope, writes Stephen Jardine.

Friday, 11th September 2020, 4:45 pm
Martin Perry, of the developers, with the centrepiece of the new St James Quarter in the background (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)

This week brought news of a new restaurant opening in Edinburgh. Before you read that sentence again just to check, yes I did mean opening not closing.

Sushisamba is to be the rooftop restaurant at the prestigious W hotel which is due to open in 2022 at the heart of the new St James Quarter development. However announcing this right now is a bit like saying you are popping out in the middle of a category 5 hurricane to buy an umbrella.

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The restaurant has a concept, which is always a bit of a worry. In this case it is a fusion of Japanese, Brazilian and Peruvian cuisine. I would never have thought of mixing steak, sushi and ceviche... but perhaps that’s because I’ve never had the opportunity. As they plan the opening, the owners will be spoiled for choice when it comes to good meat and fish suppliers in Scotland but what they really need more than anything else comes from further afield and is called a vaccine.

Until that arrives, every restaurant is walking a tightrope, trying to reach profitability while implementing social distancing measures that make that harder.

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Overall, neighbourhood restaurants seem to be faring best. With three-quarters of the population still working from home, trusted nearby places are pulling in customers during the day and in the evening.

City centres are a much harder proposition without the office crowds and when it comes to locations, they don’t get tougher than shopping centres at a time when nearly 50 per cent of non-food shopping is now taking place online.

That’s why the developers behind the St James Quarter development have taken a different approach. With an aparthotel, Everyman Cinema and a variety of bars and restaurants, it aims to create a visitor hub that will generate the footfall to support retail.

With £850m being spent on the project it is bound to be impressive and a welcome replacement for the mouldering old decay of the previous concrete shopping graveyard. But the world has changed since demolition on that started back in 2017.

Even back then bars, restaurants and cinemas in retail centres survived because of the shoppers. Post-coronavirus, shops in retail centres need the bars, restaurants and cinemas to survive.

With more and more business moving from bricks to clicks this year, this must be the worst possible time to be contemplating opening a giant, expensive retail centre.

From the outside, launching the St James Quarter looks like introducing a special Rishi Sunak £10 off dinner promotion in the Titanic restaurant half an hour after it hit the iceberg. And yet, what we need right now, as much as a vaccine, is hope.

Just hours before Sushisamba was unveiled, Pizza Express announced the closure of 73 restaurants with the loss of over 1,000 jobs. That comes on top of the 3,000 jobs cut by Pret and the permanent closure of big chains like Carluccios, Bella Italia, Café Rouge and Byron Burger.

The hospitality headlines make grim reading and many in hospitality believe the worst is yet to come. So amidst the gloom when someone shiny strides onto the stage, stands on top of a giant pile of money and tells us everything is going to be OK, the least we can do is applaud their optimism and hope they are right.

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