Restaurant bids to continue pub in the park vibe post-lockdown

Verdi's in Clarence Park, St Albans.

Verdi's in Clarence Park, St Albans. - Credit: Archant

An entrepreneurial restaurateur who took advantage of lockdown to create a pub in the park is hoping to make it a permanent feature.

Terenzio “Terry” Di Francesco, the owner of Verdi’s Trattoria Italian restaurant on the corner of Clarence Park, initially started selling fresh fruit, vegetables, eggs, bread and milk from an outdoor stall after the pandemic hit.

This expanded to include takeaway pizza and pasta, and then pints of draught lager, Aperol spritzers and Prosecco in plastic glasses.

With the onset of the warm weather, the park was soon packed with picnicking households looking to enjoy the festival-style atmosphere.

But many left behind mounds of rubbish in their wake, prompting Verdi’s to introduce a deposit scheme on plastic glasses, but also resulting in a backlash from some local residents and intervention by the police for breaching their licensing restrictions.

After using temporary event notices for the past few weeks, alcohol sales have now been suspended while the restaurant applies for a permanent change to its licence.

Verdi’s now wants to be allowed to sell alcohol for consumption on the eight wooden tables they have outside the restaurant, as well as for takeaway.

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In response to the changes they say they have supplied additional bins to assist with litter management within Clarence Park, brought in a policy of challenging anyone who looks under 25 and attempts to buy alcohol, and stop serving food and drink 30 minutes before the park closes to encourage groups to disperse.

Terry explained how Verdi’s transformed in reaction to the pandemic: “At the start of lockdown, rather than close the business, we started to look at how we could keep everyone going.

“As well as daily cappuccinos, homemade cakes and ice cream we decided to sell the basics that everyone might need so they didn’t have to go to the supermarket.

“We started with all the basics like eggs, milk, cheese and homemade bread then widened this to include fresh fruit and vegetables, tins and cereals. Next came fruit and veg boxes - all delivered locally to those who were unable to get out and we added groceries to this as well.

“Partly as a result of what we were doing, we found that during lockdown Clarence Park and Verdi’s almost became a life-line - particularly to those who were without a garden and in many cases, without companionship. Our staff were sometimes the only people who they spoke to for days on end and we saw many highs and lows as customers coped with isolating and being on their own.

“More recently, we have seen friends and family gradually getting together as lockdown has eased and the park has developed a wonderful, vibrant family atmosphere - it has vitality, and most of all, is being enjoyed by young and old alike, safely together.

“Unfortunately the application objections have become centralised around it being used to licence to sell alcohol in the park instead of our business need to regularise what we do.

“The response from all our customers and visitors to the park has been been amazing - they have been so generous with their comments and unbelievably supportive of our staff who have worked so hard - and for Verdi’s to have been part of that, particularly when there has been so much stress and strain for so many people recently, has been a real pleasure.”

But local councillors do not agree. Cllr Chris White said: “Clarence Park is a precious asset and has for years been there for local people and their children to enjoy quietly.

“Recently, parts of it have turned into the equivalent of a pub garden - nothing wrong with pub gardens but that’s not what the park is for. So having a permanent off-licence facility here will permanently change the nature of the park and that isn’t what local people want.”

Verdi’s liquor licensing application is set to be heard on July 17. The deadline to comment has now passed.