Tradition never goes out of style and 1889 Enoteca is about as traditional as it comes.
Co-owners Dan Clark and Manny Sakellarakis opened 1889 Enoteca 15 years ago in the heart of Woolloongabba’s antique district. The space – a former heritage-listed rubber works building – was, quite aptly, built in 1889 and took the duo two years to restore and fit out with marble tabletops and red banquette seating. The menu boasts classic Roman recipes and an award-winning wine list that brought natural wine to Brisbane almost a full decade before it became mainstream.
Clark sat down with Broadsheet to reflect on the last 15 years at 1889 Enoteca and teases what’s coming next.
Save 20% when you buy two or more Broadsheet books. Order now to make sure they arrive in time for Christmas.SHOP NOW
First of all, congrats on 15 years!
Thank you very much. It's like dog years for restaurateurs – every year feels like 10. In my mind, it feels like we opened a lifetime ago.
Tell us a bit about your background. What were you doing before you opened 1889 Enoteca?
I've been in the wine trade since I was 18, now I’m 48. So I’ve been working in wine for 30 years. I worked in wine retail in London and then Brisbane. And I own my own wine wholesale company called Addley Clark Fine Wines, which will be 19 years this year.
For the uninitiated what would you say the key differences are between Italian cuisine and Roman cuisine?
There's a definite difference, that’s for sure. [Roman cuisine] revolves around a lot of pork dishes. Guanciale is cured pork cheek and that's used in a lot of those pasta dishes like carbonara and gricia.
Roman food is known to be gutsy too, with lots of flavour. Typically Italian is not meant to be super refined; you’d only find three or four ingredients per dish, which helps the clarity of flavour shine through. It is basically the opposite of French cuisine. It's simple, flavoursome.
You mentioned Roman cuisine is “gutsy”. What, in the last 15 years, do you think is the gutsiest dish you ever put on the menu?
The menu has stayed pretty much the same for 15 years. [That’s pretty typical] when you’re basing yourself on something classic, you’re not trying to reinterpret something, you're not trying to reinvent the wheel.
So you know those classic dishes like cacio e pepe? When we opened 15 years ago – unless you'd been to Rome and you'd eaten that dish – not many people had actually heard of that dish. Fifteen years later and lots of Italian restaurants have added it to their menu and something as simple as cacio e pepe is actually a super, super hard thing to get right.
And is cacio e pepe the dish you’d recommend to someone if they hadn’t been to 1889 Enoteca before?
The gnocchi is probably the thing that everyone in Brisbane knows. So that’s the gnocchi with pork and fennel sausage, parmesan cream and truffle tapenade. That's been on the menu since day one as well, that’s the one that everyone really dreams about.
1889 Enoteca has been lauded for its wine list, and your background is in wine as well. What’s the key to putting together a killer restaurant wine list?
First and foremost, the wine list has to make sense with food, you can't be going off on massive tangents. So that's why we've sort of stuck to things from that Lazio region, and things from all around Italy. We originally had Australia, New Zealand and French wines on the list, and it didn't make sense with food. So, I think from probably about 2010 we moved to a full Italian list and the diners were really into it because they could pick things that they’d never tasted before.
[Then recently] it was named world's best wine list in the Gambero Rosso list from Italy. So, it's got a couple of pretty good awards, but also you’d have to be passionate about wine and the story and why the grapes are grown that way.
You opened in 2008. How has the food scene in Woolloongabba (and Brisbane more generally) changed since then?
It's amazing to go back 15 years and have looked through some of the guides and restaurants [that] were open and the style of food that they were doing. There’s only us and a couple of others that have been in the same spot for 15 years. It's kind of a testament to the quality of the restaurant: the food, service and the wine that we put out. People keep coming back.
What's really changed [since 2008] is that diners have travelled a lot more. So, you know, they’re experiencing different restaurants in Italy, in the States, Europe, and then they come back and they sort of really latch onto those things that they had in Europe and think, “I loved the food in Rome, I’ll try this Roman restaurant in Brisbane.”
There's also so many restaurants now, that's kind of the main difference. There were quite a few when we first opened but, you know, there's so many now. [The restaurants] are smaller, too, compared to some of the bigger restaurants that opened when we opened like Cha Cha Char, Urbane and Il Centro.
And the wine landscape has changed a lot too. People are really into natural wine and I can honestly say that we were the first restaurant in Brisbane to introduce natural wine so I’m kind of proud of that fact as well.
There's probably a bigger spread of restaurants and a more diverse sort of range of cuisine. Fifteen years ago, you could have counted all the Japanese restaurants in Brisbane on one hand, and same goes for Thai restaurants, so I think there's definitely more choice out there.
What do you think is the reason for Enoteca’s longevity?
We’ve always been focused on putting flavoursome, good quality food on the table. Decisions are easy to make if you have those things in mind. Everything’s considered but big decisions are pretty easy. From the seats that you choose, and the cutlery, the music that you play, and the way the waiters are dressed, all those sorts of details make up a restaurant. Those are the things that we focus on, so that the guest that sits in that seat on a Tuesday night has a great night and wants to come back. It’s pretty basic, it’s hospitality 101. but it takes a journey to get to the point where you have that clarity. We found that focus really early on, that’s why we’ve been around for so long.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in the last 15 years?
There’s been a few! The GFC in 2008 was pretty heavy, people had heaps of money and then had no money. And then Covid-19 changed the landscape as well. And then you've had labour issues. It never ends. You're always challenged by something, but you know, touch wood we've been through some pretty heavy stuff and still we’ve been able to come out the other side so I don't want to think about what's around the corner next.
What advice would you give to first-time restaurateur who's thinking about opening their first spot? What’s an overarching lesson that you’ve learnt?
Just what I said before, having clarity about what it is that you want to do. If you want to do great Thai food, do the research, go and taste the benchmark restaurants and then come back and deliver it in your style. I think that's the only advice I'd ever give anyone.
You’ve got to be passionate. You’ve got to want to tell a story too. That's what Enoteca’s done, it's communicated our passion for Roman food, all those times that we’ve been to Rome in the last 30 years. We've got recipes from the great restaurants in Rome and sourced those great bottles from wineries around Italy. That's our story.
What’s made you most proud over the last 15 years?
At the end of the day, the best thing is that guests have been coming for 15 years, people have come back and that's the pat on the back that you want.
So, what’s next for Enoteca?
We just keep delivering. Doing what we’ve doing for the last 15 years, making people feel comfortable, serving great food and wine. The restaurant wasn't ever meant to be trendy, it was always meant to be classic and if you’re classic, you never go out of fashion.
Can you see you see Enoteca being in the same spot for another 15 years?
Absolutely. That's the plan.