When Did Merivale Get This Good?

Justin and Bettina Hemmes’s hospitality group has had its detractors over the years, some of whom wrote it off as a real-estate company with an interest in restaurants. But somewhere along the way, it became one of the most innovative and important culinary forces in Sydney. How did it happen?

Published on 05 March 2020

Justin Hemmes is crouched on the floor staring at the point at which two slabs of terrazzo meet, swapping out expansion joints. It’s a month or two until Merivale’s three-pronged project on the middle floor of Coogee Pavilion opens, his schedule is overflowing, but here he is, staring. “That’s what we’re looking at,” he says, pointing to the razor-thin edge that slots between the joints. It must be one millimetre wide.

He moves through the worksite. Drills fire, cords hang like tentacles from the space where the ceiling will go, and lists, timelines and tile samples are strewn across a table. Hemmes – all in black, bare ankles, Nikes – is now drawing on a map of the ceiling in the centre of a huddle of architects, designers and builders. He wants the sprinklers to move by 20 centimetres. Is this level of scrutiny for show, I ask. “No,” says his sister, Bettina Hemmes. “We do this every day.”

Snap back a few weeks, and the restaurant on the corner of Challis Avenue and MacLeay Street in Potts Point is being retrofitted into Lotus 2.0, a second coming for the bistro where a 24-year-old Dan Hong first made his name. Today, it draws locals and Hong diehards alike with a throwback Modern Australian menu headlined by hand-cut noodles with scarlet prawns, a sundae drowning in hot-fudge sauce and Hong’s seminal Lotus burger. But back in the construction phase, Frank Roberts, Merivale’s food and beverage director (and the original Lotus manager), is picking his way through rubble. Standing in front of the original onyx bar, unearthed after being sealed in cladding for years, Roberts says that for Merivale, Lotus is a chance to bring some more fun to this part of Potts Point – bar, burgers and all.

Cut to the Ivy precinct in the CBD – Merivale headquarters, and home to several of its venues. Australian chef Jordan Toft, brought on in 2014 (from The Eveleigh in Los Angeles) to launch the Coogee middle floor is planning his menu, along with everything else a launch requires. We walk past Little Felix, where wines poured from magnums and crushed jungle prints complete a glamorous set straight out of 1920s Paris; past Bar Topa, the hole-in-the-wall tapas bar overseen by Toft; past Lorraine’s Patisserie, where the esteemed Lorraine Godsmark is portioning strawberry and mascarpone cake. Up Palings Lane is a space planned for Jimmy’s Falafel, a Middle Eastern restaurant helmed by former Rockpool chef Simon Zalloua, while next door, staff at Bar Totti’s – a spin-off of the breezy Bondi hotspot that’s fast become the model for Sydney’s fourth wave of Italian dining – are waiting for the pizza oven to be tempered.

Toft has had a part to play in these openings, but Coogee is his. A place with, as Toft says, a Mediterranean influence but an Australian sensibility, where the menu flows seamlessly from rock oysters to salt-baked mud crab and southern crays cooked gently over the Josper grill. “It’s new, but it feels like it’s been here for a long time, and also that it’ll be here for a long time,” he says. “There’s this beautiful, effortless elegance.”

Back at Coogee, it’s Pantone flip books and ceiling samples among the din of hammers and angle grinders. Project manager Taylor Pocklington has climbed a ladder with a handful of swatches. “It’s too pink,” says Bettina. “Too white,” says Justin. “Do we change the buff on that one?” asks Amanda Talbot, the stylist who’s worked with Merivale on a clutch of openings, including Fred’s, Bert’s and The Paddington. “Justin has the best eye of us all,” she says. “We spent an hour talking about the size of the stones in the terrazzo.”

Bettina describes how the site will look when it opens. At one end there’s the tapas bar, Una Más, that draws on moods gleaned from the Balearic, Adriatic and the Mediterranean, and serves the likes of vegetables dressed simply with olive oil and salt; charcoal lamb tomahawks; and grilled octopus with a lick of fermented habanero. In the centre is Will’s, a cocktail lounge with a bar rendered in European oak and marble. And further, past an open kitchen, is Mimi’s, the restaurant proper. Talbot and Bettina worked closely in the design phase on lighting, fixtures and sourcing furniture. All around, arched windows frame views of the headland and ocean. Ceramicist Alana Wilson is engaged to craft decorative vessels and lampstands in a size grand enough to suit the scale of the place, while artist Celia Gullett has been commissioned for the custom artworks. Justin, meanwhile, has grand designs of his own. “For that style of dining, I want it to be one of the best restaurants in the world,” he says. “No pressure.”

Justin and Bettina Hemmes at Mimi's, Coogee | Photography by Nikki To

This is Merivale in 2020, but the business looked very different at the turn of the millennium, when Justin, then in his twenties, had just taken over from his father as CEO and the Olympics were about to invigorate the city. Justin’s first two multivenue projects – Hotel CBD in the mid-’90s, and the Establishment in 2000 – signalled a transition for a company that had started in fashion, moved into real estate, then fixed its attention firmly on hospitality. Both sites were stacked with multiple venues – clubs, bars, restaurants, accommodation – but this was a time when the company was known more for its night-life than its restaurants.

If you went to a Merivale venue in the early years, you’d have seen the kind of set Victor Wade hung with in Glamorama – celebrities, models, DJs, promoters – drinking Cosmopolitans and rocking frosted tips or animal prints. That, or the corporate-lawyer types who’d put their credit card down at the bar until close, plus anyone else who wanted to feel like they were part of it all for a night. Apart from Lotus and fine-diner Est, the Merivale of this era was known for venues that were grand and showy, rather than nuanced.

Today, the name Merivale means something else. There are still the clubs and cocktail bars, but excellent food and drink, and the service that goes with it, have become keystones. The company is bigger, with 3000 staff and 70 venues across Sydney, but the set-up – a core team with various strengths and skill sets – means that each, or at least most, of the group’s places still manage to feel personal and often, best-in-class.

With Coogee, and a focus on big-ticket, chef-led restaurants, we’re seeing the culmination of the company’s third act, driven, in many ways, by this team. And the thing that many of them have in common, from Roberts to Franck Moreau to Peter Doyle to Toft, is Est.

As the fine-diner in the Establishment complex, Est won awards right off the bat, but the turning point came in 2003, when Peter Doyle moved over from Celsius. Not just because Justin had signed one of Sydney’s most lauded chefs, but because Doyle brought his team and his pull. The very best people, who’d once wanted to work for Doyle at Celsius, now wanted to work for Merivale.

“I joined with Peter Doyle at Est in 2003, and to be perfectly frank, [Merivale wasn’t] running restaurants very well at that time,” Roberts says. “We had an opportunity very quickly at Est, and at Lotus, to bring some good people in and to work with Justin to do it really well. I look at the people that I worked with at Lotus, Est and Ivy, a lot of them are still with us today.”

One of those people was Merivale’s group sommelier, Franck Moreau, brought on to be the catalyst for change in the wine program. Moreau says he always had the family’s trust, even if it took a couple of years for them to understand exactly what he was trying to do – bring the same level of focus and attention to wine as everything else. Look at Merivale now and his impact is even clearer – there’s the bright summery list at Totti’s, the magnum-only offer at Little Felix, the range of naturals and classics scattered through the venues. But it started with the world-class cellar Moreau built at Est.

If Est was a statement of intent, Dan Hong was another. Signing the talented young chef after a turn at wd~50 in New York, then giving him the tools to do his thing at Lotus, coincided with a run of defining openings. Ivy in 2008. Felix in 2010. Mr Wong in 2012. But it was Ms G’s, serving cheeseburger spring rolls and yuzu slushies, that set a new precedent. The story has been told before, but it hinges on Dan Hong obsessing over the newly released Momofuku cookbook in 2009. David Chang came to Lotus for a guest dinner, Hong cooked the American chef’s food, Justin famously sampled the whole menu in 45 minutes. When Hong explained that this was the style of cooking he was into, the seeds of Ms G’s were sown, with Hong front and centre.

This was new for Merivale. “We said, ‘Let’s start with a blank canvas – you design the menu, and we’ll build the concept around you and your menu’,” Justin says. “Prior to that it was always, ‘We’ll build a restaurant, then we’ll find a chef.’”

Slowly, the chefs were becoming a bigger part of the conversation. Ms G’s might have been casual, with cocktails in plastic sippy cups, the Stoner’s Delight for dessert, and design that was loud more than subtle, but it marked a fresh approach for the group. When Hong went on to open Mr Wong with Jowett Yu and Eric Koh, both respected chefs in their own rights, there was a growing sense that Merivale, rather than being generic or just playing to the crowd, meant business in the restaurant game. What’s more, the backroom was equipped to handle it.

Dan Hong outside Lotus 2.0, Potts Point | Photography by Nikki To

Let’s break down the team. You have Deirdre Ryan, the group ops manager, who manages new venues. In her words, she’s an anchor, holding the teams together. Roberts, meanwhile, is a people person, someone who works closely with Justin to identify and bring talent together. He’s the guy who typically makes those meetings happen. He’s also responsible for the service culture, training programs, establishing systems and maintaining standards.

Franck Moreau stocks the cellar and does drinks, along with Sam Egerton and Paul Mant, their bar guys, and Adrian Filiuta, another master somm. Training is also part of Moreau’s remit. On the food side, there’s a team of seven executive chefs, including Hong and Toft, each with different venues and responsibilities. Talbot works on styling with Bettina, and the company engages one of three architectural firms, depending on the project.

By 2017, when Danielle Alvarez was ready to open Fred’s, her produce-driven Paddington fine-diner, these systems were working to give it the best possible chance of success. Even signing her was largely down to the set-up. At the time Alvarez was at Chez Panisse, California’s original farm-to-table restaurant. Roberts and Justin were introduced to her, and, liking what they saw, pitched her a concept, showed her a couple of models, then supported a shared vision. The accolades that followed are testament to the process – and it’s a similar story at Bert’s and Totti’s. But the company is still evolving. In 2018, Merivale set up an apprentice-chef program headed by Doyle.

“With Merivale I think the biggest challenge is going from a business that felt like it was run by a family to a business that’s still run by a family but is much too big to really operate on that level,” Alvarez says. “There’s a transition in terms of finding the structures that work. You know, putting people in those positions who can see the bigger picture.”

“I’m sure Justin wouldn’t like to admit it, but without some of those people I think anyone who’s been here for the last five or so years would feel a little bit lost – those are the people who have really led us into this new phase and this new feeling within the business.”

Merivale is a family company, sure, but one that’s changing. What keeps people around are the opportunities to grow and be creative while knowing that the complexities that usually come with running a business are taken care of. Mike Eggert – who co-ran a restaurant, then pop-ups as Pinbone, before eventually starting Totti’s with Merivale – cites it as one of the biggest draws of working with the company. Pinbone was lauded, but the seams were always threatening to come apart.

“We ran it with three old tissues, a minty wrapper and some change,” he says. “Working with the big group allows you to focus on what you need to do: write menus, train staff, get young apprentices and then train them properly.”

Justin’s staff says his eye for talent, and detail, are constants.

“He’s a perfectionist. He demands excellence,” Roberts says. “He really sets the standard, particularly around ambience and design. He knows what great is with food, he knows what great is with service, but creating that atmosphere? He’s phenomenal.”

Alvarez saw this firsthand with Fred’s, from the day when Justin stood in the kitchen and sketched out a floor plan of what the restaurant would look like, through to the launch, and then again with other venues. “He’s an extremely detail-oriented person,” she says. “Even just the vibe of a place – I’ve never seen anyone do it as well as he does, just walk into a room and just kinda figure out, ‘Okay, what needs to happen here for people to have a better time?’”

While Merivale restaurants might once have been recognisable for a particular mood that could feel indistinct or FUN (rather than fun), these days they’re most recognisable for being good. The focus on detail, meanwhile, means that even at scale things stay warm and memorable. “It’s creating an atmosphere unlike a lot of other restaurants; it’s that indescribable thing of when you walk into a Merivale venue – it’s the lighting, it’s the music, it’s the combination of the food with the drinks, it’s everything,” Alvarez says.

“I think that’s the difference,” Hong says. “It’s that high standard that’s expected in every little detail.”

Fred's, Paddington | Photography by Mark Roper

What does a typical day look for Justin Hemmes? I can tell you: it looks busy. “That’s today,” he says, holding out his phone. “Interview, design meeting, X-ray for my broken arm [kitesurfing 10 days ago], construction meeting, furniture meeting, operations meeting, CFO meeting … and then an event.”

Easing off isn’t his thing. “We’re hands-on operators,” he says. “I love the evolution of the business. The growth of the business. I love working with all people of different personalities, different skill sets.”

And that, really, has been the story of the group’s development, one driven by personalities rather than some overarching vision. The focus is on the detail, then the picture emerges – rather than the other way around.

“We don’t really have ‘big milestone’ plans, it’s just exciting ideas that we run with, and then how they unfold determines whether they become milestones or not,” he explains. It’s less grand vision, more gut.

“Look, it happens pretty quickly. We’ve been doing it long enough and we’ve got enough opportunities that we can run with ideas without overthinking them. Often it’s a concept or an idea I’ve had in my mind for a while and it’s about finding the right venue to execute it or the right people to execute it. I think we know what’s good. And if you over-discuss it, you start questioning yourself … and you can actually lose something that potentially could have been great.”

Justin Hemmes at Mimi's, Coogee | Photography by Nikki To

Over black tea sweetened with honey in Coogee’s family-friendly ground floor, as children play in the sandpit and parents stand in line for their flat whites, Justin notes how much the customer is a driver. But it’s also about how his tastes have developed: the clubs coinciding with his party-boy days, the family-friendly venues coinciding with the growth of his own family, the ambitious restaurants driven by his experiences eating around the world with his chefs. “Every venue has a lot of us in it,” he says. “It’s about our story as well, and the venues are evolving because we’re evolving, in particular Bettina and I, but also our staff and the senior staff.”

Merivale’s structure, it seems, means that it can be ambitious, but it’s still nimble enough to respond to changing tastes. Look at how Papi Chulo came and went with the Southern barbeque, dude-food thing; how Est shuttered at a time when the future of grand multicourse fine dining is in question; how Totti’s was the first in a stream of fourth-wave Italian restaurants, clearing a path for eateries such as Ragazzi and Cicciabella.

And that’s the trick. Merivale may be an ever-expanding behemoth – one previously written off by some diners and industry insiders because it’s a corporate restaurant group – but it’s a very good one, and it’s redefined Sydney’s hospitality offering. The city is a better place to eat and drink because of it. The company has set food, design and service standards that other operators aspire to emulate, raising the bar for drinking and dining across the board.

The next step? Reinvigorating Sydney’s nightlife in the wake of the lockout laws being lifted. “Our push is late-night dining, entertainment, live entertainment, activating the city, making the city come alive and have a heartbeat,” Justin says. “I think the timing’s perfect.”

This story originally appeared in print issue 21.