"What are we going to do?"
There’s a moment from the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic that will always stick with me. It was March 21, a Saturday night, and I was walking through Fortitude Valley, looking for somewhere to eat. By now the writing was on the wall – there was going to be some sort of national shutdown to contain the coronavirus. The Valley’s clubs and pubs were still open but hardly anyone was inside (I remember some dickhead – some random drunk dickhead – running up and down Brunswick Street Mall trying to hug strangers).
I cut through a car park off James Street just as a chef emerged from his restaurant’s service entrance. The last time we’d seen each other was before Christmas. Happier times. Now, he caught my eye and stepped towards me. He looked drawn, his jaw stiff. He tried on a smile that emerged as more of a grimace. And then he began to talk, his voice thin with anxiety.
He talked about standing down staff, and how they’d had to close the restaurant’s sister venue. This was one of the best eateries in Brisbane, but behind him its dining room sat deserted. Most of all, he talked about his suppliers – in particular, farmers who’d planted produce specifically for the menu. “I’m not sure I can use any of it,” he said. “What are we going to do?”
That’s when it really hits you. Brisbane’s food and beverage scene isn’t built just on restaurateurs and chefs and floor staff, but an entire network of producers and farmers, many of whom have direct connections with the venues they supply. Such is the way in this seasonal, locally sourced, paddock-to-plate world in which we live. Now, the coronavirus was beginning to split the whole thing apart.
Over the coming days, in person and over the phone, you’d get variations on this same kind of shell shock. “We won’t last two weeks.” “I’ve laid off most my staff.” But most of all, “What are we going to do?” It was framed as a question not just about their own venue, but the industry as a whole.
Sure enough, we lost some significant names in the early days of the pandemic. Arc Dining, Jamie’s Italian and Maria Caribbean Kitchen all closed. Others, such as Little Valley, Stokehouse Q and Il Centro would never emerge out the other side. Looking back from December, it can make for grim reading.
But the true story of 2020 turned out not to be those we lost, but those who survived. Jobkeeper helped, for sure. But in the week before the wage subsidy’s March 30 introduction, restaurants, cafes and bars were already beginning to transform their businesses in clever and surprising ways. “Pivot” would quickly become a food-writing cliche.
Same Same, Baja, Gerard’s Bistro, Gauge, The Wolfe and E’cco – some of Brisbane’s very best restaurants – all launched takeaway menus (or “pop-up” takeaway menus, as was the case with The Wolfe’s terrific taco and lobster roll offerings). All were an immediate success. Shannon and Clare Kellam made use of their enormous new production kitchen, The Kneadery, to launch an at-home Montrachet menu that saw the French restaurant punch through up to 1000 orders a day. Elsewhere, small bars (as well as cafes and restaurants) such as Canvas took advantage of loosened liquor licensing laws to sell obscure booze takeaway, turning themselves into fancy bottle shops.
The early wins encouraged others to follow suit. Proof BBQ & Booze, Umami, Happy Boy and Soapbox Beer all launched delivery services powered by Bopple, a Brisbane-based point-of-sale plug-in that allowed venues to handle delivery themselves (or contract it out to a chosen third party). Proof could barely keep up with the orders, while the Happy Boy team were so encouraged by the success of their delivery menu that they folded it into Kid Curry, a brand-new online restaurant.
Everywhere all the time, necessity bred invention. Some operators were simply trying to keep their lights on, but others were looking out for suppliers and producers, or perhaps finding work for their skilled migrant workers (whose lack of Covid coverage by the government ratcheted up the longterm jeopardy both for them and the wider industry). The winners, of course, were diners, who could experience their favourite restaurants at home and help break the monotony of Covid restrictions.
Operators such as Happy Boy’s Cameron Votan and Gerard’s Bistro’s Johnny Moubarak will tell you how Covid-19 reset the expectations between restaurants and customers. And one of the most interesting trends to come out of the pandemic has been the success of suburban favourites over the traditional heavy hitters in the CBD, illustrating the strength of “local” (for other Covid-related dining trends in Brisbane, see here).
Remarkably, there were even cafe and restaurant openings in 2020. Eye-catching new morning spots such as Plentiful and pure-pink croissanterie Superthing debuted in mid-March, right when the pandemic was tightening its grip on the country. As the local restrictions started to ease, they were joined by the Montrachet crew’s fancy breakfast brasserie Mica, Colombian cafe spot Cafetal, and Byron Bay import Moonshine Coffee.
In terms of restaurants and bars, the middle of the year was more about adaptations as Eleven Rooftop Bar became Maya, a restaurant designed specifically for Covid dining restrictions; CJ’s Secret Pasta Club was reborn a few blocks over as Pasta Club; and Little G moved down the hill from Dutton Park to brand new digs in Woolloongabba. El Planta landed some permanent digs in South Brisbane, and Shalom and Wensley Bitton’s Smokey Moo shifted across the river to the Gasworks precinct. The old Pony site became Andrew and Jaimee Baturo’s Naga Thai, and the old Longtime digs in the Valley transformed into Eterna, a slick late-night Roman restaurant. As we moved into spring and then summer, it almost felt like business as usual with high profile openings such as Agnes, and then the recent double hit of Southside and Kiki Kiosk.
So what’s the narrative for Brisbane’s food and beverage scene going forward? Is it still one of fragility, or is it about an underlying strength? Because while we’ve lost a lot, many of those who expected to be washed away back in March are now powering through a busy Christmas season. Business at some restaurants is almost as strong as 12 months ago.
As for what will change in the coming years, perhaps the clearest indicator is eateries such as Uh Oh Spaghettio and Siffredi’s, smaller green-shoot operations with cheap(ish), unfussy food menus and cheap(ish), approachable drinks lists. There’s no shortage of openings on the horizon, either – Darvella, Bianca, a bricks-and-mortar Kid Curry, La Costa Restaurant and a new riverside home for Coppa Spuntino are all set to be unveiled in the coming weeks and months.
Still, the pandemic is far from over. Ask any restaurateur about how their next 12 months are looking, and they’ll tell you to call back after Jobkeeper ends and vaccinations begin. In short, don't undo your seatbelt just yet.
See you in 2021.