Apparently there’s a pandemic. You wouldn’t know it in Brisbane sometimes.
I walked into Agnes in mid-March last year, just before the Fortitude Valley restaurant was originally scheduled to open. Chef-owner Ben Williamson and I stood in the middle of the dining room and discussed the coronavirus. This was a week before the March 23 national shutdown of food and beverage venues, and before Jobkeeper and Jobseeker and pivots and pop-ups, and everything else that became part of our Covid vernacular. A different time.
I remember Williamson's worry as we talked about the fate of his restaurant, his first as co-owner, but we also wondered aloud whether this was the end of Brisbane’s charmed run as Australia’s up-and-coming food destination. Seasoned operators had been talking for years about our food scene being in a bubble, ready to burst, and here came an enormous pandemic-shaped needle.
In April this year I interviewed Williamson under very different circumstances. In the 13 intervening months he and business partners Frank Li, Bianca Marchi and Tyron Simon had turned Agnes into a pop-up woodfired bakery, opened the restaurant in earnest to critical acclaim, and were now planning the opening of Bianca, their star Italian restaurant, while eyeing off a permanent location for Agnes Bakery. Things were going well.
“The past year has been great,” Williamson said at the time. “I don’t want to make light of it because Covid was really difficult for a lot of people. And it was really difficult [for us], but running restaurants and working in kitchens is inherently difficult anyway. It was just another a hustle.
“The opening of Agnes was great,” he continued. “The re-emergence of local people dining locally and not leaving the state – that’s all coming back. Overseas holidays are off so people are spending money locally. Restaurants are busy in this town. You talk to everyone around town, and they’re busy.”
It was true. Ask restaurateurs how their year was going in 2021 and you’d often get this dazed, almost disbelieving response. Things, somehow, were going well. Instead of the end of Brisbane’s food and beverage scene, Covid felt like an accelerant.
You only need to look at our best-of lists for restaurants, cafes and bars. It was far from a quiet year. Beyond Bianca and Agnes Bakery, James Street welcomed the more family-oriented Italian of Gemelli, a bricks-and-mortar home for Sprout, the classy all-day Lebanese of The Green, and Phil Marchant’s precise share plates at Essa. Across Ann Street, the Happy Boy crew opened Kid Curry, the online delivery restaurant finally moving into a handsome physical home.
The Valley proper saw the arrival of Ghanem Group’s Bisou Bisou and Iris, and the classy Italian of understated Rosmarino. On the other side of the mall, Stefano de Blasi and Edoardo Perlo opened La Costa Restaurant and La Valle, with de Blasi collaborating with Icatha’s Ross Ledingham on Argentinian restaurant Evita.
In the city, Coppa Spuntino got a popular revival at Eagle Street Pier, and was joined by the Port Office crew’s Banc, and Dan Clark and Ben Russell’s enormously impressive Rothwell’s. The Death & Taxes team opened Dr Gimlette on Edward Street, and up the hill in Paddington there was brilliant pizza place Elementi and moody wine joint Noir.
It was the same across the river. Otto relocated into the fabulous old Stokehouse Q spot, C’est Bon scored a rooftop bar, Dovetail Social opened in Highgate Hill and Bellissimo (finally) opened to the public at its Coorparoo headquarters. In Woolloongabba, QT and Ovolo veterans Vince Lombino and Jared Thibault debuted Sasso Italiano, while Dan Rodriguez opened two new venues in the spiffy Logan Road precinct, The Tailors and Mr Badgers. Fish Lane was the lucky recipient of Brisbane’s very own Lune Croissanterie.
The big obvious trend in 2021? Italian, Italian and – man, really?! – more Italian. It was almost comical, the number of pasta and pizza joints the city welcomed. But such has been our hunger for comfort food during the pandemic, and just about all of them are very good. And, like a well-worked film genre, these eateries are now being stretched in interesting new directions – check the playful, glamorous vibe of Bianca, or the Italo disco-inspired Sasso.
Elsewhere, some operators had the opportunity to fling a bunch of ideas at the wall and see what stuck. See de Blasi and Perlo’s miniature precinct at FV Peppers in the Valley, with four different venues opening since the end of last year. One of them, La Costa Bar, has already evolved into The Parlour.
Eager landlords and low rents have helped create a spirit of experimentation the city perhaps hasn’t seen before. Not everything will last, of course, but right now that’s okay. Brisbane’s dining scene has come on in leaps and bounds in the past seven years but it can still feel top heavy at times, like a music album that’s all hits and no deep cuts. We’ve traditionally lacked the smaller tenancies that might allow a couple of young chefs or barkeeps with a neat idea to jump in and swing for the fences. Terrific restaurants such as Agnes and Bianca and Southside and Otto and Donna Chang grab the headlines, but it’s smaller venues such as Joy or Maker or Elska or El Planta or the newly opened 1st Edition and soon to open Butler that help lend it texture.
Low rents help facilitate that, of course, but longterm the city needs to continue to ween itself off its old obsession with bigger spaces.
Of course, not everything was peachy this year. Some are describing the national shortage of hospitality workers as a crisis. And the numerous snap lockdowns in Brisbane in 2021, which seemed to have a nasty habit of kicking in on a Thursday or Friday, pushed some operators to the absolute limit (“One more of these and I’m cooked,” said one).
And now, as we steam towards 2022, Omicron is upon us. It will bring its share of sickness, separation and misery like its forbears, but for small and medium-sized business people, it will bring uncertainty, just as our various governments are looking to seed the opposite across the national economy.
Regardless, the Brisbane restaurant scene has developed such momentum and national reputation these past few years, it’s hard to see it crashing and burning quite like some of us feared it would. Covid-weary southerners continue to move to the city at a steady clip, including plenty of chefs, sommeliers and restaurateurs (including, even, Melbourne chefs and sommeliers – see Arte Assavakavinvong at Melrose, or Rani Parish at Agnes and co) – and soon, hopefully, international borders will reopen to allow the return of student communities along with overseas tourists.
In short, Covid, right now, has seemingly created a stronger restaurant scene in this city. Let’s see where it goes from here.