It all started because John Fink hated his restaurant.
“A friend of mine was having lunch at Otto,” Fink explains. “He pulled me up and said, ‘John, I love this restaurant.’ And I was like, ‘I hate it.’ He was shocked, couldn’t understand. ‘Why?!’ he asked.”
At the time, Otto Ristorante, on Sydney’s Cowper Wharf, was pushing 12 years old. It was one of the city’s most established dining experiences, but to Fink it felt dusty. He wanted to give it some new life. “My friend said, ‘I can fix that for you.’”
That friend turned out to be Michael Rebelo, the Australian CEO of advertising firm Saatchi & Saatchi. Rebelo led a redesign of the Otto brand, tapping into the lemon yellows and deep sea blues of Italy’s Amalfi Coast, and playing on the capitalised “OTTO” as a palindrome. “It’s very virile,” Fink says. “If we were going to import this brand somewhere else, that had to be stage one.”
The new look didn’t just bring Otto Ristorante into the present, it lit a fire under the Fink Group as a whole. Over the past four years it has expanded from two venues – Otto and Quay, the group’s iconic fine diner – to seven high-profile NSW restaurants, with the successive openings of The Bridge Room, Bennelong, Firedoor and The Larder (Otto’s casual next-door neighbour), as well as a partial acquisition of Beach in Byron Bay.
Now there’s an eighth. Next week, Fink Group will throw open the doors of Otto Brisbane, a cosy 130-seat eatery four storeys up in the newly completed 480 Queen Street development.
On an interminable, anticipation-building escalator ride, the gleam of 480 Queen’s glass and steel gives way to warm wood, crisp tiling and a series of terraced gardens. Pride of place is a view of the Story Bridge like no other. Its twin peaks are right in front of you, the curve of the river, with its cliffs and shelf of apartments, forming a winning backdrop. With the Howard Smith Wharves and Customs House occupying the periphery, it’s a location that taps into Otto’s links with the sea, and one that wasn’t on Fink’s radar until the building’s owner, Australian property group DEXUS, came calling.
“I’ve got this theory: if you can’t drive to work, don’t do it,” Fink laughs. “But they really wanted us in here. The conversation started two years ago and we signed 18 months ago.”
Ever since, it’s been “FIFO once a week”, Fink commuting from Sydney on Thursdays, donning high-vis workwear to check on the progress of the restaurant. Now, with the construction workers gone, you can see the fruits of his careful attention.
Working with architecture firm Tonkin Zulaikha Greer and project-management company Aver, Fink Group has created a warm, inviting space, the slatted wooden detailing, lively colouring and ginormous open kitchen almost as engaging a view as what’s outside. The restaurant spills out onto the terrace and is offset by Otto Bar on the opposite side of the escalators (which, all going to plan, should open a couple of weeks after the main space).
The acres of timber — including floorboards cleverly angled towards the scenery — is a reference to the Cowper Wharf original restaurant, but the internal detailing also has practicality in mind. “The Brisbane dining scene is a little more discreet than Sydney,” Fink says. “That’s where these slatted columns come in. There’s a little more privacy.”
The menu is subtly different also, Fink says. If the original Otto Ristorante referenced the north of Italy, Sydney export Will Cowper has created a Brisbane menu more in tune with the warmer climate of the Mediterranean. “The food comes from the Otto bible, but is perhaps more immediate,” Fink says. “It’s just got that southern Italian influence.”
Fink Group veteran Sam Pask will manage Otto Brisbane, with Alan Hunter (formerly of e’cco and One Eleven) serving as sommelier. Fink says to all intents and purposes the space is finished, but Otto will run a series of “soft” events before it opens to the public on June 14. “We’ve got 44 levels of acronyms above us,” he laughs, referring to 480 Queen’s other tenants. “We want to invite them down to explore the space.”