It’s Thursday March 19. I’ve spent hours on the phone to various Melbourne restaurateurs. They’re distraught. Their businesses are nosediving, loyal staff are being laid off and everyone is dropping the C-bomb (“closing”).

Christian McCabe, of city wine bar Embla and upstairs restaurant Lesa, seems strangely calm, maybe because he’s “been on the brink of bankruptcy before” and survived.

“We could try to keep paying people for a period of time and go bankrupt and never open again, or we can call it early, which we’re doing,” he says. “I’d be surprised if, by the weekend, we’re still allowed to be open anyway.”

This Saturday, McCabe and his business partner, chef Dave Verheul, will serve their last guests at Lesa before shutting the restaurant indefinitely. Trade has “dropped off a cliff” since last weekend, due to coronavirus.

“For us, in the middle of the city, all the offices are working from home and no one’s going to come into the city. It’s really about convenience,” McCabe says. “If you’ve been told to work from home, you’re not going to be in the city. And if you are, you don’t want anybody seeing you drinking at a wine bar, because you’re supposed to be being safe so you don’t take your company down with you. I don’t blame people for that.”

Sadly, Lesa is just one of many of the industry’s coronavirus casualties. Restaurants, bars and cafes across the country are closing in droves as huge swathes of the population self-distance and self-isolate. Some are closing temporarily, others permanently – it’s an existential crisis the likes of which the Australian hospitality industry has never seen.

Embla will remain open for the time being, but McCabe doesn’t see it lasting past the end of next week. “We’re running the business into a coma and we’ll keep it there until we can bring it back to life,” he says.

“I’m super confident we’ll be back. It’s a temporary, if super serious, setback. But I really believe we’ll be back at it some point. A lot of our existing staff will come back to us.”

Related stories:
Live List: Melbourne Restaurants Closed Due to Coronavirus
A Closer Look: Lesa
How It’s Made: Lesa’s Beetroot Terrine