t’s a Friday night in Melbourne and as the sun lowers and the air cools, the line outside restaurant hot-spot Chin Chin grows steadily longer, snaking its way down Flinders Lane. Inside, diners who have managed to score a table consume Thai share-plates of kingfish sashimi, mandarin duck and gin cocktails, yelling to each other over the loud music that bounces off walls plastered in stylised posters. Those in the queue outside grumble and strain to see in, trying to catch the eye of the restaurant’s host, who points people towards the heaving bar or, if they’re lucky, to a cleared table.
A couple of suburbs over in Collingwood, Huxtaburger staff work frantically to keep up with orders, stacking brioche buns with wagyu beef patties, salad and house-made mayonnaise, while punters down cheap bottles of beer and chew crinkle-cut chips outside.
There’s a notable difference between the cost of a night out at Chin Chin and the price of a burger and beer on the run, but there are plenty of similarities in these dining experiences too. These eateries – and a handful of others – are producing and serving great food in venues that combine the ambience of a bar with the sensibilities of a restaurant. And while hushed conversations may be occurring across starched linen tablecloths in the subdued atmosphere of fine dining restaurants across the city, the hoards are flocking to places with informal menus, occasional DJs and, for the most part, affordable wine lists. And it’s not just for dinner on the weekend. Chin Chin, Izakaya Den, The Moor’s Head, Huxtaburger, Movida Aqui, Café Vue and Paco’s Tacos are flat chat most days and nights of the week.
But while trends sweep across cities and particular cuisines gain a foothold, however fleeting, the shift from a la carte towards food that is ‘accessible’ is symptomatic of a wider movement that can’t be ignored. Put simply, the way that we’re eating is changing, and those lengthy queues outside a swathe of inner city eateries are at least some form of proof.
The restaurateurs leading the charge don’t believe that this signals the death of fine dining in our city. Indeed, the majority of this select group still operate fine dining establishments, or at least come from that background. They do agree, however, that diners in Melbourne are eating out much more than they once did and believe that the shift towards relaxed restaurants is simply a response to what Melbourne diners want and expect.
“There’s no doubt diners are looking for more casual experiences, but not at the cost of quality,” says Chin Chin owner Chris Lucas, whose savvy sense of what people want saw him turn the rundown Botanical in South Yarra into a booming business, which he eventually sold in 2007 for $15 million, going onto acquire the elegant fine dining establishment Pearl, another restaurant that has experienced ongoing success. “I think [this trend] reflects many things,” he muses. “Consumers are more educated and therefore more empowered. Diners just want great, authentic food with as little fuss as possible. In many ways, it’s a new level of sophistication.”
The Builders Arms, a stalwart of Fitzroy’s pub scene, has been renovated and reinvigorated by the Melbourne chef with the Midas touch. Andrew McConnell, owner of hugely popular fine dining restaurant Cutler & Co. and the more relaxed but no less impressive eateries Cumulus Inc. and Golden Fields, is bringing back the counter meal at The Builders Arms. Partnering with Cumulus head chef Josh Murphy and Anthony Hammond, McConnell won’t be cooking in the pub’s kitchen, but his stamp is all over the food. And his version of a counter meal certainly doesn’t adhere to our traditional idea of pub grub.
As McConnell recalls being asked the same old questions in the lead up to opening the pub: “‘You’re doing a parma, right?’” he says. “And most pubs have a parma and it’s a benchmark for a lot of people. We’re not doing a parma. Instead, we’re doing a free-range chicken cooked over an open fire in a rotisserie in the beer garden. We’re serving half a bird quite simply in the bar and that’s our replacement for people.
“The way I cook and my approach is I’m always trying to source the best produce, treat it with care and deliver it really well to the punter. That will be my take on the counter meal.”
It’s this approach, which ultimately encompasses the hallmarks of fine dining – quality ingredients, cooked beautifully – that is now such a hit with diners. The difference is that the food is more affordable and it’s being served in a relaxed setting, rather than one that focuses on silver service.
Joseph Abboud, the pioneering chef who contributed to the popularity of Middle Eastern food with his Brunswick East restaurant Rumi, last year opened his take on a Lebanese pizzeria, The Moor’s Head in Thornbury. He says that 10 years ago, there was no way you could have opened a restaurant that only served fried pizza. But thanks to restaurants like Ladro, Supermaxi and Mr Wolf, attitudes have changed. The popularity of these places is testament to the sophisticated tastes of Melbourne’s residents, who will now quite happily sit down to a simple menu like the one at The Moor’s Head, which features man’oushe (Lebanese pizza), pides, salads and desserts.
“Whenever a culture is trying to learn something you always have to take it to the extreme. So a culture that never used to dine out thinks that fine dining is the only way you can eat out,” says Abboud. “But as the public becomes educated and understands that fine dining is the highest level of eating out, the package can change. But that doesn’t mean that the quality drops.”
Simon Denton, who runs Izakaya Den on Russell Street, says that Melburnians now expect their dining experience to be as entertaining as a night out on the tiles. Denton carved out a name for himself with Verge, a plush, Japanese-influenced restaurant that had diners drooling over its high-end, innovative menu (created and cooked by chef Dallas Cuddy). He has spent the past couple of years running a more relaxed venue in Izakaya Den, a more upscale, contemporary incarnation of a traditional izakaya – an informal Japanese eating house not dissimilar to a pub.
Serving share plates of more-ish bar food that complement an extensive wine, beer and sake list, the basement venue has been a hit. “When I started Verge, there was more of an appetite for fine dining, but the market has changed over the past 10 years,” he says. “I think the generation that were going to nightclubs and getting their entertainment that way no longer want to do that. They like their food but want to go somewhere with a bit more atmosphere than a fine dining restaurant. It sort of becomes a night out itself.”
But why is this appetite for relaxed dinners of shared plates, affordable booze and no bookings so much more popular in Melbourne than in other Australian cities? Denton suspects that it stems from this city’s thriving bar scene. “We created this sense of going to two or three bars in a night and the food grew from that. The operators started to see that people were willing to go to a few venues and guessed they would do the same if food was involved,” he says.
In addition, diners themselves are far more food-savvy than they once were, educating themselves via the city’s burgeoning breadth of dining options, increased access to produce and a reinvigorated media presence.
McConnell agrees. “There’s been a lot of exposure through mainstream press in the past three to six years,” he says. “The population growth of the city has contributed, as has the introduction of farmers’ markets, which have given people access to a lot more different produce and activated a lot of people’s interest in food.”
Abboud believes fierce competition between chefs and operators has also contributed to the breadth of great restaurants across Melbourne. “I think competition is absolutely incredible, which is always pushing everybody,” he says. “If someone is doing something that is really pushing the boundaries then it pushes me to do my research better, make sure that I’m staying true to what I do and to ensure I’m keeping things fresh.”
When Huxtable, just around the corner from McConnell’s pub, opened on Smith Street, Collingwood in 2010, the focus on share plates – along with contemporary flavours that crossed seamlessly between cultures, from Korea to Italy to the Middle East – enticed swarms of interested foodies. Realising they were onto a good thing, Huxtable’s owners decided to dip their toe into the fast-food business. It may sound like a bizarre choice, but Huxtaburger was never going to produce your typical fish-and-chip-style hamburgers. The brainchild of Dante Ruaine, who worked at MoVida and Pelican before opening Huxtable, Huxtaburger’s simple menu of diner-style burgers, chips and beer is filling one of the few foodie gaps left on Smith Street.
When the Huxtable team considered opening another restaurant on Smith Street, one of the priorities was not to cannibalise their own restaurant. “We didn’t want to compete with ourselves and we wanted an alternative to all of the kebab shops that are around us,” says Ruaine. “We had burgers for our staff meals quite a lot and we thought they were the best burgers we’ve ever had. We took all of things that we didn’t like – we didn’t want our burgers to be too fancy or tricky – and used the great contacts we have to get great meat and awesome buns. We serve house-made mayonnaise, so all of the things we wanted to control have stayed in our control.”
It works a treat. Punters roll up for lunch, dinner and post-drinks for a well-made bite. Even though the burgers only cost between $8 and $11, they comprise patties made from grass-fed Moondarra wagyu beef, house-made pickles and mayonnaise, and brioche buns. Again, quality, considered ingredients are the priority here.
It’s a concept that Denton is familiar with. “These venues are being smart about what they’re serving,” he says. “You can serve a premium ingredient in a much smaller size and sell it at a better price point for the customer. So as opposed to going to a restaurant like Rockpool, which is great in its own right, and spending $80 on a wagyu porterhouse, you can have a little piece of wagyu with shitake or something for about $20.
“So the meal can be balanced out – you can throw in some premium things and then balance it out by adding some cheaper ingredients. In fine dining, there’s a lot less of that flexibility.”
For most of these operators, opening a space that is entertaining and rates highly in the flavour stakes is as much about keeping customers happy as it is about continuing to innovate and challenge themselves. Put simply, it’s about serving food in a space that they themselves would patronise.
“Opening restaurants that are [less traditional] is really challenging and exciting for me,” says Lucas. “I tend to thrive on innovation and I feel Chin Chin has broken new ground, just like the Botanical did 10 years ago, in what is a traditionally conservative and somewhat insular industry. I like to be ideologically provocative with my restaurants, to be always challenging the traditional paradigm. Our food culture demands a depth of experience, not just for the consumer but also for the great people working and training in our industry.”
In a highly practical sense, moving away from what might be seen as the limitations of fine dining – expensive overheads and a limited (yet cashed-up) customer base – is better for business. “If you look at dining as a pyramid, the fine dining market is at the top of the pyramid. Really, as a business model, you want to have more of that pyramid patronising your venue,” says Denton.
For Ruaine and the boys at Huxtable, the choice to open restaurants that are less traditional is also about presenting good food in a space that welcomes, rather than intimidates. “Even Huxtaburger is a softer example of that fine dining…that’s just the way we like to be served. A lot of us have come from a fine dining background and after a while, some of those things just aren’t as applicable as they once were,” he says.
McConnell, who firmly believes that there is still a strong appetite for fine dining in this city, nonetheless enjoys the approachable aspect of a pub. “What I like about the pub culture is the fact that it is one of the most casual environments that we can socialise in,” he says. “You can come, have a beer and order a steak and chips and do that at any time. To me, casual dining is about the flexibility of price and quality of food, and being able to turn up somewhere and eat at any time.”
The question now is, where to next? Will this march towards the informal continue in the same direction?
“There’s certainly a thirst for new things,” says Denton, who is currently opening two businesses at the old Verge site, one of which is Japanese-style cafe, Nama Nama . The other, the soon-to-open Hihou, will be more formal, but bar-oriented with a strong focus on food. “That casualness will stay around, but I think that people are going to want more. I do feel that they’ll get sick of no bookings, they’ll get sick of small portions – they’ll get more discerning about it. As operators we’ve got to keep thinking about where it goes next.
“Those models – while they’re very good at the moment – probably just have to get better and work with the customer and try to find ways to improve the product and not become too expensive. Price is still an important part of dining now, especially because people want to eat out two or three times a week,” says Denton.
“What’s fine dining anymore?” asks Lucas. “To some people, Chin Chin is a fine dining experience. In my view fine dining doesn’t mean haute cuisine, necessarily, or high-priced eateries. It means a great food experience no matter what the style or environment. Having said that, I hope there’s a place for every type of eatery in a great food city like ours.”
McConnell believes the emphasis on less traditional and more affordable ways of doing things has contributed to Melbourne defining itself as a food city to take notice of. With greater access comes greater education and Melbourne diners are now more knowledgeable and appreciative of good food than ever before – a set of sensibilities that can only continue to mature and grow.
“It’s been great for Melbourne and it’s created another layer in a very rich and exciting industry,” he says. “I think Melbourne has pioneered…a really lovely dynamic in the city. It’s a moveable feast.”