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Boost for NI hospitality industry as customers flock to pubs

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Kate and Carla having a drink in Belfast’s Thirsty Goat yesterday

Kate and Carla having a drink in Belfast’s Thirsty Goat yesterday

Tony O’Reilly and Paula Breen waiting outside The National

Tony O’Reilly and Paula Breen waiting outside The National

Freddie Parkinson

Antonio Getty, John Macrory, and brothers Gary and William Blackadder

Antonio Getty, John Macrory, and brothers Gary and William Blackadder

Freddie Parkinson

Natalie Wilson welcomes customers back to The Dirty Onion

Natalie Wilson welcomes customers back to The Dirty Onion

Freddie Parkinson

Kate and Carla having a drink in Belfast’s Thirsty Goat yesterday

Pints and cocktails were finally back yesterday as a large swathe of Northern Ireland's hospitality sector reopened.

Beer taps were flowing, food was back on the menu and cash registers were ringing as customers returned to pubs, restaurants, hotels and cafes.

It was a momentous day for the industry, which closed its doors in March due to the Covid-19 lockdown.

Now the sector is hoping to get back to a sense of normality after the crisis, which has cost millions of pounds in lost trade.

However, patrons will have to adjust to a very different experience for the foreseeable future, with social distancing markers in place, contactless payment and table service all in place.

Yet revellers were happy to be able to spend some quality time with friends and family yesterday.

Some said they had been up since early morning in anticipation.

Hospitality Ulster chief executive Colin Neill said that while the industry will not be making any money for "who knows how long", the reopening did offer "hope" to those who work in the sector.

"I think it's great, from what I have seen, that people are coming back, and everyone is respecting the new procedures, which has been really good," he added.

Belfast's popular Cathedral Quarter, with its many bars, restaurants and hotels, drew plenty of customers.

Tony O'Reilly and Paula Breen were queuing outside The National before the doors opened at noon to ensure they got a seat.

"Just getting out and about and having a fresh pint of Guinness poured in a glass would be nice," said Tony.

A short walk away at The Dirty Onion, another queue had formed as Damien McArdle was waiting patiently to enjoy an afternoon with his friends.

"It'll be interesting to see how they manage it inside because I have no idea what way the rules are or what the craic is," Damien said.

"I walked around Belfast there and the streets are already getting busier. I saw a big queue at The National as well which is good to see."

Inside the venue, Antonio Getty, Josh Macrory, and Gary and William Blackadder travelled to Belfast from Ballymena for the reopening.

"We got straight on to the pints of Guinness and the Magners," Antonio said. "I was up at the crack of dawn because I was so excited.

"We're not sure if we can get in anywhere else because this is the new normal. We just don't know if there'll be queues so we might just sit here and keep our seat."

Josh said it had been a long three months, and was delighted the wait was finally at an end.

"Nobody really knows what's happening and the bars are working through it themselves so everyone just needs to have a bit of patience, which they're all doing from what we can see," he said.

Michael and Karen Scott from Tandragee had spent the morning shopping and stopped into The Thirsty Goat for a quick drink.

The couple, along with their son Ethan, were delighted with how the service was operating.

"We just went in for a drink and it was fine, it was probably one of the safest places I have felt since this all started," Michael said. "You go into a shop and people are leaning over you to get at the shelves sometimes, whereas you go in there, you sit down, they take your order and it's brought down to you. I enjoyed it."

Tim Heron, operations manager at Ulster Sports Club, was looking forward to opening the doors, but admitted the weather could have been better.

"People are busting to get out and they'll understand that we have made every endeavour to make sure all of our social distancing is in place," he said.

Natalie Wilson, restaurant manager at The Dirty Onion, filled 15 tables in the venue as soon it opened but staff were expecting a queue.

"It's fantastic," she said. "I was always used to working upstairs but obviously now with the way everything is laid out, the whole bar is going to be food and seated service.

"We have our table plans done up and people seem very excited to be back."

Neil Stewart from The Thirsty Goat explained the venue has been made as safe as possible for staff and customers.

Elsewhere, Mark McKibbin at The National was enjoying a great start to the afternoon as the front bar was filled at lunchtime.

"People were queuing outside and everyone is adhering to the social distancing guidance," he added.

"It is very staff-heavy - just to start with anyway - to make sure everyone is adhering to the laws. We have to have someone on the door and we have to have table service so people aren't serving themselves at the bar so to speak."

Belfast Telegraph