Restaurants are top of the menu as consumer confidence returns

The 6.9 per cent growth in restaurant sites in the year to June is in marked contrast with a 4.4 per cent decline in the number of drink-led pubs and bars, as more consumers opted for a meal out over a visit to their local or a high street bar.

According to the Market Growth Monitor, compiled by AlixPartners and CGA Peach, and reported on by The Times, the advisory and consulting firms, the number of licensed restaurants in the UK has for the first time overtaken the number of local community pubs.

While the number of restaurants increased by 1,770, net of closures, to a total of 27,500, the number of so-called wet-led community boozers — once the backbone of the licensed trade — fell by a net 1,440 sites, or 5.1 per cent, to 26,680.

Reflecting the continuing growth of the dining-out market, the data also show a 9 per cent increase in the number of branded food-led pubs, such as Harvester and Chef & Brewer, to 2,400, over the past year.

The findings back up recent comments from pub operators, including JD Wetherspoon, Mitchells & Butlers and Marston’s, which have blamed the mushrooming casual dining sector for a softening of their like-for-like sales growth.

The trend marks something of a turning of the tables. During the recession, consumers reined back their spending, trading down from high street restaurants to cheap pub grub, but now that they have a bit more cash in their pockets they are starting to trade back up to slightly more premium offers.

The improving economy has had a knock-on effect on openings, sparking rapid expansion of private equity-backed casual dining chains such as Nando’s, Côte, Bill’s and Ed’s Easy Diner. Changes of ownership have also kick-started expansion at established brands such as Bella Italia, Café Rouge and PizzaExpress, while The Restaurant Group has stepped up the pace on its Frankie & Benny’s and Coast to Coast concepts.

Paul Hemming, managing director of AlixPartners, the financial advisory firm, said that although London remained the growth engine, increasingly the branded restaurant operators were seeking expansion opportunities beyond the M25, in cities including Leicester, York and Sheffield. “It is clear that the desire for quality food and bar offerings has spread across the country,” he said.

The strong restaurant growth helped to stem the long-term decline in the total number of licensed premises in Britain, including hotels, nightclubs and bars. Over the past 12 months, there was a net increase of 965 to slightly more than 124,000, which compares with a decline of more than 8,000 venues in the previous five years and 20,000 in the previous decade.