At 7am on Wednesday, the Wolseley, a West End diner frequented by a mix of financiers, dealmakers and celebrities, will throw open the doors to its first outpost in the City of London.

The launch of the Wolseley spin-off, which occupies the site of a grand former department store opposite London Bridge known as the “Gateway to the City”, marks the biggest restaurant opening of the year in the Square Mile, costing an estimated £10mn.

It comes as London’s financial district presses ahead with efforts to redefine itself as a destination for restaurant-goers, day trippers and tourists in a push to offset the drop in office workers’ footfall since the shift to hybrid working following the coronavirus pandemic.

The number of restaurants in the City fell by 28 per cent between September 2019 and September 2023, outpacing the rate of closures across the capital, according to research by industry tracker CGA and consulting group Alix Partners.

But in the past year the district has stemmed the tide — losing just 1.3 per cent of its sites, the lowest rate of decline for any inner London district.

“Things have definitely picked up in the City,” said Baton Berisha, chief executive of the Wolseley Hospitality Group, which was founded by famed restaurateur Jeremy King before he was ousted by majority owner Thai-based Minor Hotels last year.

Berisha predicted that higher demand for corporate lunches from workers in the office between Tuesday and Thursday, as well as increased footfall from tourists on weekends, would ensure the new outpost remained “very busy” beyond opening day. Wolseley Hospitality Group operates nine sites across the UK.

Historically deprived of a vibrant dining scene, the City has added a series of marquee venues over the past decade, and demand for the Wolseley’s upmarket competitors nearby has remained strong despite the cost of living crisis.

Coq D’Argent restaurant
The Coq D’Argent restaurant in the City of London © Charlie Bibby/FT

One Lombard Street, a brasserie located opposite the Bank of England, had its best trading day in its 25-year history in mid-October, recording just over £60,000 in turnover. A few streets away, almost 2,000 diners visited steak restaurant Hawksmoor’s City outlet in the last week of October, 15 per cent higher than the same week in 2019, when it did not open on weekends.

Gareth Banner, managing director of Soho House-run members’ club The Ned, said the Wolseley was a “welcome addition” to the Square Mile. “I’ve always adopted the view that a rising tide lifts all boats. “I’m conscious that they will be competition . . . but ultimately it makes the City a bit more of a destination,” he added.

Demand patterns resemble a “bell-shaped curve” concentrated between Tuesdays and Thursdays, when workers commute into the office, according to Soren Jessen, a former banker who runs One Lombard Street. In turn, restaurants have cut back on staffing numbers on less busy days: the Ned saves up to 25 per cent on payroll on Mondays and Fridays, Banner said.

Oyster card usage at London Underground stations located in the City were 13 per cent higher on a Wednesday in mid-October than on an average day before the pandemic, according to a Financial Times analysis of data from Transport for London, which runs the network. But usage on the Monday and Friday of the same week last month was more than 20 per cent down on pre-Covid levels.

Soren Jessen, owner of restaurant 1 Lombard Street
Soren Jessen, a former banker who owns restaurant One Lombard Street © Isabel Infantes/AFP/Getty Images

Jessen said that in the middle of the week, regulars “come for breakfast, go and have meetings, come back for lunch and then a drink in the afternoon. You can spend a lot of money in one restaurant.”

Corporate lunches, the linchpin of demand for City venues, meant the district was better placed to weather any economic slowdown, according to Will Beckett, chief executive of Hawksmoor, which has had a presence there since 2011.

“In a cost of living crisis, you’d probably rather be exposed to corporate cards than purely household income; it’s a bit more robust,” said Beckett, estimating that two-thirds of midweek lunches at his group’s Square Mile restaurant were paid for by corporate credit cards.

But the Square Mile has also benefited from an increase in leisure visitors over the weekends, spurred by a £2.5mn-a-year investment from the authority that manages it. Sunday lunch at the Ned, for instance, is fully booked for the next six weeks.

“On weekends, we never had anyone much in the City . . . that has absolutely changed,” said Chris Hayward, policy chair at the City of London Corporation, which began its annual investment in 2021. “The stuffy image of the City of 20-30 years ago has long gone.”

He said efforts to boost tourism had helped the City compete with local rival Canary Wharf and global competitors, such as New York’s financial district. Both have put more focus on diversifying into leisure attractions since the pandemic.

Will Beckett, chief executive of Hawksmoor
Will Beckett, chief executive of Hawksmoor, estimates that two-thirds of midweek lunches at the group’s Square Mile restaurant were paid for by corporate credit cards © Charlie Bibby/FT

Coq d’Argent, a rooftop restaurant overlooking the BoE, used to be “a sea of suits but . . . not anymore”, said David Loewi, managing director of its owner D&D London. “You can’t just rely on the corporates anymore.”

Karl Chessell, CGA’s director of hospitality, said upmarket restaurants were likely to be “less susceptible” to an economic downturn because of the spending power of their clientele. But he cautioned against “calling the bottom of the market”.

The possibility of more rail strikes later this year could yet hit the hospitality sector over the vital Christmas period, while a planned rise in business rates next April could add to restaurants’ costs.

But for the time being the City’s dining scene continues to thrive. “The Wolseley has never really been about the food, it’s about the overall experience and the buzz . . . and the City has always been open to that formula,” said Peter Harden, who collates the annual Harden’s London restaurants guide.

Additional reporting by Patrick Mathurin in London

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