Restaurant and bar closures due to COVID-19: Many of our favourite places are gone

Want to help the world once lockdown ends and we can all travel again? Great: get drunk. Get as much food in your stomach as you can handle. Stumble from bar to bar to café to hole-in-the-wall restaurant and repeat.

Because these are the venues that are suffering. These are the ones that could disappear.

It can be hard to keep up sometimes in this world of constant bad news, hard to work out the permanent changes that COVID-19 will have wrought on the globe once we all properly emerge.

So let me catch you up on something. The social venues you love when you travel? The small, family-run establishments, the bars, the cafes, the trattorias, the izakaya, the tapas bars, the aperitivo joints, the modest businesses that don't have huge financial clout? They're already disappearing. Some will never return. And the ones that are still there are in desperate need of your help.

This is one of those things that has hit me recently. Everyone has their favourites when they travel, the places they like spending time in, that make them feel alive and thrilled. Some people love museums, some like art galleries. Plenty love forests and rivers and the great outdoors.

I love bars and cafes and little restaurants. I love the connection they give you to local culture, and the connection to local people. I love that you can while away hours in these places and not bother anyone, that you can just slip seamlessly into local life and enjoy yourself with no pretences.

A Parisian café sounds like just about the best thing in the world right now. I would do anything to order pintxos in a bar in San Sebastian, or tuck into sashimi in a Tokyo izakaya.

And yet, how many of those places will be left by the time we all emerge?

Because these are among the venues that are being hit the hardest by the worldwide cycle of lockdown and re-emergence, of boom and bust, the constant battering that COVID-19 has forced upon small business owners who work in the food and beverage space.

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Already, some of the places you once loved have gone forever. In Spain, historic tapas and pintxos bars across the country have closed their doors, never to reopen.

Bar Manolo, a fixture in Seville for 50 years, is gone. Cal Pinxo, the seafood specialist for more than 60 years in Barcelona, is gone. Taberna Basaras, a favourite in Bilbao for more than 80 years, is gone. A Fuego Negro, such a vital part of the modern pintxos movement in San Sebastian, is gone (as is the family-run classic, Aitzgorri). Many more are in danger and will probably have pulled down their "Persiana" shutters for good by the time any of us makes it over there.

The news is just as bad in Japan, where izakaya – often-tiny bars that serve beer and sake to pair with small plates of extremely good food – are struggling, with bans on alcohol consumption and curbs on opening hours, along with the loss of the tourist trade in its entirety, making these small businesses almost impossible to run.

Plenty have closed already – 842 Japanese bars and restaurants filed for bankruptcy in 2020. More have followed since, and will continue to close as the pandemic unfolds.

The same thing has happened in Rome, too, with its family-run trattorias and osterias that have had so little government assistance. It's happened in Berlin. It's happened in Bangkok. It's happened in Buenos Aires.

These venues are the heart and soul of a city. They bind the social fabric. They're vital to culture in a way that we in Australia can probably never properly understand. In cities such as Tokyo and San Sebastian and Rome you live in these places, you do all of your socialising there, you visit one every single day of pretty much your entire life.

Right now, of course, there's not a whole lot we can do about this. Australians have their own set of problems, namely an ever-growing list of COVID-19 exposure sites and cases.

At some point, however, we will be able to travel again, we will be able to visit the places we love and experience the new normal. And when that time comes, the absolute best thing you can do is seek out all of those small venues you once loved and spend your money. Support your favourites. Allow them to survive.

And hey, if that means gorging yourself on Basque pintxos, even though everything has changed, even though the food is now tucked behind plexiglass screens and there are limits on how many people can crowd into these bars at once, then you should do that. If that means getting boozy with a whole lot of your newest Japanese mates while scoffing sashimi and karaage and all that other good stuff, then that's a hit you'll just have to take.

This is the highlight of the travel experience. These venues are the pinnacle of contemporary culture and a vital window into the local psyche. And they're fun – so much fun.

Some will not exist by the time we make it back into the big, wide world. Those that do, however, could use your patronage.

What are your favourite small-bar and restaurant scenes around the world? Where are you planning to go back to first? Do you think your favourite venues will still be there when you return?

Email: b.groundwater@traveller.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

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