On a Tuesday night in March last year, Tom Sanceau sat at the bar of his popular Coppa Spuntino restaurant, drink in hand, and pondered his impending demise as a restaurant owner.
“I was done,” he says. “I was totally done.”
At the end of 2019 Sanceau and business partner Bonnie Shearston owned three venues with 60 staff across Brisbane and Los Angeles. By the new year, Pollen, their popular LA brunch venue, was gone – a death by a thousand cuts at the hands of legal headaches and California’s exhausting permit laws. Now, Coppa was set to follow as the coronavirus pandemic cleared Brisbane’s CBD of its office workers and Sanceau and Shearston elected not to extend its Creek Street lease.
By April they had just one staff member – a chef – working the griddle at popular burger joint Red Hook, itself being squeezed by the federally mandated shutdown of food and beverage businesses. Shearston was bedridden in Los Angeles with a suspected case of Covid-19. Things were grim.
“They were really grim,” Sanceau says. “We hardly did any takeaway because it doesn’t matter how good your burgers are – why would you go into the city for takeaway during Covid? We had these kegs of beer that we weren’t moving. We kept trying to brainstorm: ‘What else can we do?’ There was nothing else we could do. So we just drank beer.”
If Red Hook had closed, it would’ve completed a precipitous reversal of fortune for Sanceau and Shearston. The duo had been on a hot streak in the early part of the previous decade. They opened award-winning boozer Canvas Club in Woolloongabba in 2010 (now owned by Dan Rodriguez), following it with game-changing restaurant Public in 2012, Red Hook and Coppa Spuntino in 2014, and classy gastropub London Fields in 2015. London Fields and Public were both sold in 2016, but Red Hook and Coppa continued as popular draws in the CBD, even as the latter struggled to draw punters outside its busy lunches.
“The original Coppa, lunches you couldn't get in,” Sanceau says. “Evenings, though, were just so hit and miss. So it was really hard to make a profit with that space.
“Pollen was great but it also took our eye off Brisbane,” he continues. “We’d established ourselves here and by going to LA we perhaps missed the boom that happened in recent years … But, you know, everyone’s gone through the same shit. Everyone’s got a story to tell. Everyone’s had issues.”
Sanceau can now afford to be philosophical. Nine months on from those dark nights at Red Hook he’s sitting in a beautifully fitted out new restaurant. This is Coppa Spuntino, but reborn by the river in an airy tenancy that used to be home to Il Centro. Coppa was mourned by its regulars when it closed but Sanceau says there were initially no plans for a reboot.
“I was questioning what I was doing in restaurants. It had been really hard to make a profit from that space,” Sanceau says. “I was happy to focus on Red Hook during Covid. But after things settled down [property developer] Dexus came along and we started talking.”
For Dexus it was simple: it had longterm plans to redevelop Eagle Street Pier but in the meantime it needed operators to occupy empty tenancies previously occupied by Pony and celebrated Italian institution Il Centro. Andrew Baturo’s Naga Thai would end up moving into Pony’s first-floor space as a long-term pop-up. Coppa Spuntino is now performing a similar trick with Il Centro’s old digs.
Not that it feels anything like a pop-up, or indeed anything at all like Il Centro. Architect Adam Laming worked with Sanceau and Shearston to create a beautiful Amalfi-inspired venue that maximises its stunning river views. Gone are the table cloths, private dining room and fine dining accoutrements, replaced by tiles and timber, white rendered walls and bar areas, and rattan lights. In the middle of the floor, Il Centro’s rows of four tops have been subbed out for a set of spacious booths and a pair of enormous communal tables.
It’s only in the details that you’re reminded of the Andy Georges (and latterly John Kilroy) classic – some of the old furniture has been repurposed and the parquetry flooring has been stripped of its shine, giving it a more homely feel. Interestingly, all this means Coppa 2.0 also feels nothing like the moody vibe of the original.
“It was dark and intimate and smaller,” Sanceau says. “This is light, it’s spacious. We wanted to give it wider appeal for people coming into the city, while still retaining the integrity of Coppa.”
Chef Vinny Clist’s snack-focused menu will feel familiar to Coppa regulars. The burrata, pork and veal meatballs, and pork and beef pappardelle are all present and correct, as is Coppa’s immensely popular gnocchi with kale and walnuts. For mains there’s roasted porchetta with rocket and apple, and a bistecca alla fiorentina designed to share. The one notable absence is a pizza menu, which Sanceau attributes to exhaust issues at the new venue, but he’s promising more pasta dishes in its place.
For drinks, Coppa has further loosened its apron with the introduction of a slushy machine that’s spinning frozen prosecco and a frozen Negroni. Otherwise, it’s a focus on Italian wines and styles, and local drops made using low intervention, biodynamic and organic techniques. As is typical for Coppa Spuntino, there’s a huge range by the glass to encourage punters to drop in for a vino and a snack.
The entire experience marks a change from Sanceau and Shearston’s usual trick of making a success out of venues no one else would touch. And its opening is perhaps fortuitous timing with Otto Brisbane’s move across the river. Plenty of that restaurant’s dedicated regulars will pile onto the ferry to South Bank, but its departure from 480 Queen still leaves an Italian-shaped hole in the CBD.
“It feels great to be back,” Sanceau says. “I’ve missed restaurants. Don’t get me wrong: Red Hook survived and has been great, but I wanted my staff back. There’s a lot of opportunity with this space … location-wise, being next to the water is a restaurateur’s dream.”
Eagle Street Pier, 45 Eagle Street, Brisbane
Wed to Sat 11am–3pm, 5pm–Late