“Very laid-back. Very sleepy. Very different to London.”
That’s how restaurateur Tom Sanceau shorthands his first impressions of Brisbane in 2009. Sanceau had arrived in the Queensland capital from his native England and remembers driving over the Story Bridge on a Saturday, wondering where all the people were.
“There was no one around,” he says. “It felt like a ghost town. Of course, we eventually found those little pockets where the action was but I saw a [city that was] very different to any place I’d encountered before.”
Sanceau also saw an opportunity. He and compatriot Bonnie Shearston had heard much about Melbourne, but when they visited the Victorian capital they found it stuffed full of great restaurants, bars and cafes. Brisbane was a big metropolis with relatively little going on.
What followed was a hot streak of venues. Sanceau and Shearston were among the first to take advantage of the Queensland Government’s small bar licence when it was introduced in 2009, opening award-winning boozer Canvas Club in Woolloongabba in 2010 (now owned by Dan Rodriguez and Bodie Schofield), following it with acclaimed elevated diner Public in 2012, popular American street food joint Red Hook and small-plate focused Italian eater Coppa Spuntino in 2014, and the now closed London Fields in 2015.
Sanceau and Shearston hustled hard – he tells the story of getting Public open on a budget that barely exceeded $100,000. But for Sanceau, looking back, those years of grinding almost feel easy when he considers the degree of talent and competition in Brisbane’s restaurant scene in 2019.
Since London Fields opened the local industry has continued to change at a ferocious clip. In 2019 alone the city welcomed Arc Dining, Maeve Wine, Baja, Stanley, Za Za Ta, Yoko Dining, Joy, Same Same, Mosconi, Beaux Rumble and Nota – and that’s barely scratching the surface. The year built on an already bumper 2018 that saw the opening of The Calile and Howard Smith Wharves, among many others; it followed on from 2017, when dining precincts such as Fish Lane and King Street finally came of age.
“You look at something like Same Same,” Sanceau says. “That fit-out is mind-blowing. Just stunning. And as a restaurant, everything there is on point – I mean, everything is on point. We were lucky when we opened Public because there wasn’t much competition beyond maybe the longstanding restaurants down at riverside.
“With all these new venues, you have to constantly raise your game. If I was to open something else, it would just need to be so much better than it used to be.”
1889 Enoteca owner Dan Clark says he struggles to wrap his head around the ways Brisbane has changed since he and business partner Manny Sakellarakis opened their celebrated Italian restaurant on Logan Road in 2008.
“I think of all the restaurants that have been and gone since we first opened and it’s ridiculous,” he says. “It’s absolutely crazy … Era has gone. Aria has gone. Ortiga has gone. Ten years ago, Urbane and The Euro were hot, but we’ve now lost them as well.
“A lot of the other restaurants that have gone by the wayside were really trendy at the start. And I think that’s the trap. I’ve learned in the past decade that there are places you go to get looked after and places you go to get an experience. As a diner, I go to get looked after. Experience restaurants are part of dining and are cool but those types of restaurants often only last for five years.”
Celebrated Brisbane restaurateur and E’cco Bistro owner Philip Johnson says the boom in new restaurants has been great for Brisbane diners, but that margins for operators have tightened significantly over the past 10 years.
“I never thought the industry was easy, but by shit it’s challenging now,” Johnson says. “The margins are just squeezed [everywhere]. I found some old paperwork from E’cco where the wages front and back-of-house were 28 percent [of total sales]. Then, you could actually make some money.
“Now, the average I see around town is more like 41 percent. Food costs were always around 30 percent, the average is now 37 percent. So you put those together and then pay your electricity and your rent, there’s not a whole lot left.”
Johnson says E’cco has continued to thrive by diversifying its business. Just doing a la carte doesn’t cut it anymore, he says. A 2017 move to brand new premises at Newstead’s Haven development gave the restaurant a much-needed injection of new life. It allowed Johnson to add a private dining room and complement it with the neighbouring Bar E’cco. Johnson has also established a successful catering business.
“The move here was good for us,” he says. “It reinvigorated us and you change your perspective. You get cracking again.
“You can’t just sit on the corner and say, ‘I’m here’. That was once good enough, but things have gotten so tight.”
It’s not just the restaurants that have changed. The punters have too. There’s more awareness of food through a decade of reality cooking shows such as Masterchef and documentary programs such as No Reservations and Chef’s Table, and there’s now an expectation for better service.
“Good food once wasn’t thick on the ground, so it was maybe 70 percent of the equation that kept people coming back,” Johnson says. “Now, it’s 50 percent and the other 50 percent is the staff and the ambience, the sommelier and so on.”
Brisbane also benefitted from the government’s 457 visa program in the early part of the decade as highly skilled international talent headed to Australia to work in the country’s booming restaurant scene. Johnson reckons “half the good staff we’ve had in the last few years have been from overseas”.
“Absolutely,” Sanceau agrees. “Staffing in hospitality has always been hard. It’s a hard industry where you work long hours … To encourage that talent to come from overseas and to have that ability to hire them has been amazing.”
The second half of the decade has been more defined by a tightening of skilled visa rules and a skill shortage in Brisbane’s kitchens, in particular. Johnson says it’s an effect that cascades down through the ranks.
“There are great people out there but it’s changing,” he says. “I can’t be too down on [young chefs] because it’s not their fault. They work in a place for two or three months and the chef de partie leaves. ‘OK,’ they’re told, ‘you’re now the chef de partie’. And then the sous chef leaves and suddenly they’re two years into their career and someone’s telling them they’re a sous chef.
“So of course, they think they’re a sous chef. They come to me and say, ‘I was a sous chef’, and I look at their CV and they started cooking in 2017. Are you kidding me?”
So where to from here? What do the next 10 years hold for Brisbane, and what are the challenges?
Sanceau has been busy with Shearston juggling their Brisbane venues with Pollen, a brunch cafe they launched in Los Angeles in 2017. He says that while he’d hesitate to open a new venue right now given the lukewarm Australian economy and the degree of competition in Brisbane, he still feels the industry is moving in the right direction.
“Brisbane is in a great place,” Sanceau says. “I talk to people who have visited from interstate and they love it. There’s always the question of whether we have the population to sustain what’s going on, but that’s rapidly growing. What will be interesting is the introduction of Queen’s Wharf in 2022. Will that suck people from Howard Smith Wharves, like it sucked people from Riverside?
“It is in a really great spot. It’s just the costs of doing business in Australia, in general, that is the main issue. Unless you’re in a prime location, you’re not going to be making that much profit.”
Clark reckons that there’s been a change in the kinds of restaurants that are opening in Brisbane. They’re less faddish, he says, and have the legs to be around for the next decade.
“I truly believe that restaurants like Stanley, like Greca – those places will be there in 10 years. They’ve got really good service, timeless food. That’s really good for Brisbane. Something like Honto – that will be around for a long time.
“The scene excites me. You can see it in the restaurants. Any friends who visit from interstate, you’d be happy taking them to those restaurants and showing them what they have to offer.”