It’s been a gruelling, at times almost diabolical year for Brisbane’s hospitality scene. Operators have spent much of 2020 walking the tightrope of forever evolving Covid restrictions while trying to keep their doors open and their key staff hired. But the flip side is that’s it’s been a year of innovation, with those who successfully navigated the autumn and early winter adapting their venues in often transformative ways. The coronavirus’s current Australian retreat will hopefully become terminal once a vaccine arrives in March, but here are some of the changes it brought about that we’d like to see stick around.
Clever ideas, neat spin-offs
The range of ideas that emerged out of the pandemic reflected the range of reasons that inspired them.
Some operators were looking out for their suppliers, some were looking after their foreign workers. Others just needed to find a way to keep the lights on. There were takeaway menus, pop-ups, lasagne delivery services, and spin-offs that would eventually become whole new restaurants.
Within days of the March 23 national shutdown on food and beverage venues, restaurants such as Same Same, Gerard’s Bistro and Gauge had launched takeaway menus. Montrachet offered its hugely popular menu of French classics as finish-at-home meals – over Easter it powered through close to 1000 orders a day.
The long-awaited woodfired Agnes debuted in April, but as a bakery, chef Ben Williamson preparing a straightforward menu of sourdough, cluster rolls, custard and almond kouign-amanns, cheesecakes, and lemon tarts (the restaurant opened in earnest in August).
It wasn’t confined to just the smaller operators either: Howard Smith Wharves transformed its enormous Howard’s Hall events space into Felons Barrel Hall, an Oktoberfest-inspired boozer replete with trestle tables and live music. It wasn’t subtle, but it was successful.
Finally, Happy Boy was late to the takeaway party, but when it arrived – powered by local online ordering platform Bopple – it went gangbusters. So much so, that owners Cameron and Jordan Votan then launched a new online-only restaurant, Kid Curry, which in 2021 will become a bricks-and-mortar.
Small Bars Slinging Takeaway Booze
Queensland is often derided for its relatively inflexible liquor licensing regime when compared to NSW and Victoria. But when push came to shove in March and the Covid shit hit the fan, licensing in this state responded almost as quickly as down south, allowing small bars, restaurants and cafes to start selling takeaway booze.
“It’s a game changer for us,” Electric Avenue and Canvas Club owner Dan Rodriguez told Broadsheet at the time. “If I was just relying on food, it would be a different story. With Canvas and Electric, we have a lot of boutique wines and craft beers, which sets us apart.”
Venues started slinging six-packs of fancy beer, bottles of obscure spirits, and bottled and canned cocktails galore. As consumers, we got more choice right when we needed all the variety we could get. At the time of writing, with Covid currently on the back foot, those adjusted liquor licence laws are still in place – long may it continue.
Booking Made a Come Back
It was arguably already in retreat, but largely gone is the 2010s fad of restaurants of unplugging the phone and having you line up for a seat.
Covid dining restrictions forced operators to re-engage with bookings, and in the process they found that, actually, it wasn’t all bad. Why? Because online-booking technology has evolved and so have punters. Deposits are being made, minimum spends abided by. The floor manager no longer need spend five minutes during service dialling “Prince – 12pax” over and over (even if it’s just to make a point). Instead, restaurateurs have a better idea of how many diners are going to turn up, and can staff appropriately.
These days, people book, they turn up on time, and don’t try to stick around into staffies. Very civilised.
Maybe it’s not share plates that will kill a la carte, after all, but the pandemic. Gerard’s Bistro and E’cco are just two restaurants that have ditched their a la carte menus, replacing them with regularly updated set options. That’s huge, particularly when it comes to a dining institution such as E’cco. But then a constantly evolving set menu suits these hyper-seasonal and produce-centric times. It makes sense.
Elsewhere, menus have gotten smaller and more manageable, both for restaurants and punters. Just look at the slew of pasta joints that have opened. All are designed to appeal to this city’s insatiable appetite for Mediterranean-style noods, sure, but what they’re really about is concise menus designed to be cooked quickly and relatively cheaply.
Support Your Local
It sucked to own a restaurant in the CBD in 2020. We’ve lost some big players in Brisbane city over the past 11 months – Arc Dining, Il Centro, Spice Den, to name just a few. But anywhere from the Valley, Paddington, South Brisbane and Woolloongabba outwards tended to benefit from an enormous community push to support local businesses.
Restaurants such as Proof BBQ and Booze, Baja and Happy Boy could hardly keep up with their takeaway orders – Proof even went on to expand south of the river in a team-up with David Ferguson and Anita Boettger’s Easy Times Brewing.
Operators such as Gerard’s Bistro’s Johnny Moubarak and Happy Boy’s Cameron Votan told Broadsheet earlier this year how there seemed to be a reset in the relationship between venue owner and guest. Neither was taking each other for granted anymore. It’s a sentiment that you hope will stick around beyond the arrival of a vaccine.