My grandfather was once a municipal clerk in New Zealand.
Back in the 1950s and ’60s, as he approached retirement, he would occasionally travel around the world to attend Commonwealth town-planning conferences. The idea was, in the post-war boom years, for wonks to pool their knowledge and create better, more efficient cities.
At these conferences there was an often-used example of how not to build a city: Brisbane. Even back then, the Queensland capital was renowned for the way its suburbs sprawled towards the horizon, making it hard to allocate amenities and build infrastructure.
Sixty years later, in 2017, you can still view Brisbane through this lens (indeed, many do. See here and here). Even if it’s because this town has, in something of a panic, suddenly realised it needs to build inward and up, rather than endlessly out.
That’s perhaps what defined 2017: the seeming crescendo of this methodical reweaving of Brisbane, of its infrastructure and its zoning and its social and economic fabric. Of the way we live and work and eat, drink and socialise.
This might sound fanciful but it’s there, baked into every new high-rise that shoots up in Newstead or the Valley or Bowen Hills. Each needs to attract buyers and tenants – no guarantee right now – and so they flip the ground floor commercial tenancies for favourable rent.
It’s great. We get brand new venues such as Chu the Phat; La Lune; and new instalments of Gelato Messina and Naïm in South Brisbane’s The Melbourne Residences. Or Betty’s Burgers, E’cco and Salt Meats Cheese moving into Newstead’s Haven development. There’s The Valley Wine Bar at the base of FV Peppers in Fortitude Valley. Or Banoi, Super Combo, Montrachet and The Lamb Shop along King Street.
It’s rapid and exciting and seems almost custom designed for Brisbane’s sometimes-fickle foodie crowd. Where’s the next hot spot? THIS is the next hot spot.
But is it sustainable? That’s the question many cafe owners and restaurateurs have been asking themselves over the past 12 months. Not every new venue is up to the standard of those mentioned above, and it creates a lot of competition for the city’s established operators. Some closed or focused their operations in 2017. We saw the Peabodys do both, winding down Nantucket Kitchen & Bar and seeking a buyer for Nickel Kitchen & Bar while opening Nativo and later Burnt Ends (no relation to the Singapore superstar). Others such as Tom Sanceau and Bonnie Shearston of Coppa Spuntino and Red Hook have decided to look overseas for opportunities; they opened Pollen in Los Angeles.
Not that you should forget about Brisbane’s infamous, undulating suburbs. You could argue that’s where the really interesting stuff is happening. This city has always done a terrific suburban eatery and in 2017 the offerings grew in number and sophistication. There was King Tea in Paddington; The Jetty transforming into Il Molo in Bulimba; Original Dave’s Low & Slow BBQ in West End; and Ze Pickle and Martha Street Kitchen in Camp Hill. Vvaldmeer gave Highgate Hill’s cafe scene a lift, and East Brisbane’s Light Coffee became a new filter go-to for southsiders.
It didn’t stop there. Further out there was Neighbourhood and Stavros the Greek in Kenmore, and Suburban Social and Hunter & Scout just down the road in Chapel Hill and Graceville, respectively. In the north, The Colour Nine became a new weekend brunch spot in Stafford Heights.
It’s the continuation of a recent trend (see Kym and Jade Machin’s Bare Bones Society and Same Same But Different, or Brent and Kylie Farrell’s Slack’s Track – the list goes on) and it makes sense: the price of real estate is pushing a lot of young families out of the inner city, chefs and other hospitality pros among them. Once settled, many are choosing to buck the commute and instead become agents of change where they’ve landed.
In terms of what we ate in 2017, everything is still trending towards the more casual and laid-back. American at Original Dave’s or poke at Suki or ramen at Taro’s, or just endless share plates everywhere you go. Whether it’s gussied-up Hawaiian comfort food or highfalutin eateries dropping the white linen, restaurateurs have been rushing towards the middle of the market, all the better to ensure their businesses remain viable. It makes it harder to have a bad experience when dining out these days, but also harder to have a truly exceptional one. “Where Have All the Fine Diners Gone?” is a story idea that still sits on the whiteboard above my desk.
What all this means is Brisbane’s cafe, bar and restaurant scenes are busier than ever. But are they healthier than they were, say, two years ago? That’s not so certain.
As for 2018, it already has a make-or-break feel to it. Certainly, it will be a bumper year for venue openings: 100 Burgers Group is bringing its immensely popular Welcome to Thornbury concept to Bowen Hills in mid-February, with fellow Melburnians Huxtaburger also talking about expanding north. Elsewhere, the Sourris brothers have purchased the long derelict Red Hill skate area with plans to turn it into a complex of five movie theatres. Thinking about the wider hospitality scene, Brisbane will be getting new Westin, W, Art Series and Emporium hotels.
Is there enough of a city to support all this? The number of high-density dwellings planned for the property market won’t ease up for at least a couple of years yet, so perhaps we’re shuffling closer towards the edge of some sort of precipice. Then again, the latest figures have Queensland’s population growth finally moving in the right direction, so maybe all those apartments will fill up after all.
See you next year.