For Sam Demetriou, poke was never going to be just a fad.
Demetriou’s Cheeky Poke Bar restaurants are by now the yardstick for diced fish and rice in this city, classy eateries in which poke bowls are treated as a jumping-off point for an extensive menu that includes share plates, nori and wonton tacos, and soups. But he first saw the appeal of the Hawaiian dish half a decade ago in his dad’s Hamilton fish’n’chip shop.
“It was early 2016, and we put it on the menu and people fell in love with it,” Demetriou says. “I then started seeing people making businesses out of it in the United States. And that’s when I went to Hawaii to learn about it properly.”
The result was Cheeky, which opened its first restaurant in Newstead in late 2017. Since then, its popularity has exploded, with further outlets sprouting in West End, Garden City and Greenslopes. Now comes Cheeky’s first CBD eatery, Demetriou moving into a small 35-seat al fresco tenancy in the recently redeveloped Ulster Lane, behind the Hermès store on the corner of Edward and Elizabeth streets. It’s a beautiful little space, lined with greenery and dotted with handsome striped umbrellas.
“The benefit of this laneway is I’m close enough to Queen Street Mall to get some foot traffic from there,” Demetriou says. “But we’re within walking distance of Eagle Street and we’re getting a lot of people coming down from there.”
Cheeky Ulster Lane operates much like its sister venues. For poke bowls, diners choose a protein – options range from salmon and kingfish to Wagyu beef and pork gyoza – add a rice, noodle or greens base, and then pick a condiment and up to five salads. Extras include avocado and a 64-degree egg. Elsewhere, there are tacos, share plates and Cheeky’s lengthy soup menu.
For drinks, there’s a tight selection of wines, craft beer and gins, as well as kombucha, Hrvst St juices and a seasonal tea. There’s also Five Senses batch-brew coffee, for those rushing back to the office. The entire venue feels like the typical Cheeky experience, but pared back for the CBD.
Not that it was always going to be this way. Demetriou originally agreed in late 2019 to take on both his current tenancy and a much larger space towards the back of the laneway. Then, of course, the city was hit hard by Covid-19. Demetriou was ready to walk away from the project entirely until new landlords Dexus offered to split the tenancy in two. He reckons it’s a post-pandemic trend that will continue.
“I think landlords have to be [more flexible],” he says. “Especially in the city, where it won’t be the same for a couple of years. The suburbs and places like Newstead and West End have bounced back.
“The city is funny now, you need to differentiate yourself, and of course we offer something a bit different … [But] word of mouth also travels really fast in the city and we’ve just been getting busier and busier.”
Cheeky Poke Bar Ulster Lane
Ulster Lane, 211 Elizabeth Street, Brisbane
(07) 3184 4404