In its nearly 500-year history, Ye Olde Mitre in Holborn has served beer under 21 monarchs, survived the English civil war and emerged unscathed from the Great Fire of London.
But few events have affected the pubs trade quite so profoundly as the Covid-19 pandemic.
Lockdowns choked off trade for months at a time. Even once venues reopened, social distancing restrictions and work-from-home guidance left city centres deserted and ruined the key Christmas period.
“We’re a real ale house so people come from far and wide for our beers: regulars, office workers and tourists,” said Judith Norman, the historic pub’s landlady.
“Our regulars tried to support us through the pandemic but with working from home we were a lot quieter than normal.”
At Fuller’s, the pub chain that owns Ye Olde Mitre, trade was down by as much as 70% at some of the city centre venues that rely heavily on after-work drinkers. Some had to shut their doors temporarily.
Now though, as plan B restrictions in England are eased, hope is returning at Ye Olde Mitre and elsewhere. Familiar faces are gradually resurfacing, dropping in for a pint after the odd office day here and there.
“They’re easing themselves back in and we’re hoping they’ll return full time next week,” Norman said.
The Fuller’s chief executive, Simon Emeny, thinks this weekend is building to a Monday “trigger point” for revival, with easing of plan B coinciding with the period just after payday and the end of Dry January, which came at the worst possible time.
“I detect a growing desire for people to put Covid behind them and start behaving as they used to,” he said.
“You’ll see an escalation next week and I suspect that normality will build back faster and stronger than it did in the autumn.”
Bookings have been strong, he said, echoing a recent statement from the nationwide bar chain Revolution, which said events and parties booked for December are being rescheduled.
“I feel really excited about February and beyond,” Emeny said.
“The first step is to get back to where we were in October, then 2019 levels and we’ll see where it goes from there.”
The early signs are encouraging.
n December, with Omicron concern at its peak, pub sales were 12% lower than pre-pandemic levels, according to industry analysts CGA. The decline was an even more sobering 23% within the M25, with London particularly hard hit by work-from-home guidance.
But by the third week of January, the deficit had eased to 11%.
Diageo, which makes Guinness and Johnnie Walker, has seen the same patterns in the more than 180 countries where it stocks the bar.
“What we see around the world is that as restrictions ease consumers are really waiting to get outside the home to socialise,” the Diageo chief executive, Ivan Menezes, said. The company is expecting trade to reach up to 90% of pre-Covid levels imminently.
Help is also at hand from Wales, where nightclubs have been allowed to reopen from Friday and social distancing rules have been relaxed.
But most leading lights of the hospitality industry are cautious, particularly given how much debt many are nursing as a lasting legacy of the pandemic.
Kate Nicholls, the chief executive of the trade body UKHospitality, warned the chancellor, Rishi Suna,k not to be complacent about the health of the sector.
“The hope is that the return to eating and drinking out will happen quicker than in previous lockdowns, when it took six to eight weeks for recovery to come through.
“But that shows it’s going to be a long haul, not an immediate bounce back.”
The best thing the government could do, she says, is to defer plans, scheduled for March, to bring the rate of VAT on hospitality from its temporary rate of 12.5% back to 20%.
The rise, she said, would “make a bad situation worse”.