Since opening five years ago, Chin Chin still pulls constant queues down Flinders Lane. It has inspired a string of imitators nationwide. But owner Chris Lucas decided it was time for a rethink.
Over the past two weeks the restaurant’s undergone a not-insignificant renovation, overseen by interior designers Bergman & Co and Samantha Eades and architect Craig Tan. There are new floors and lighting design; a royal-blue palette replacing the former greens; an extensive mirrored back-bar in the style of an antique Chinese bookcase; high-backed stools clad in blue leather; fresh rock posters from graphic designer Daanen Nootenboom, schmick new bathrooms and, perhaps most importantly, a substantially improved kitchen.
While plenty of work’s gone into the redo it’s the same Chin Chin you know and love, just a little more grown-up. “We didn’t want to break the mould, but we did want to improve different areas and make things look a little fresher,” says Lucas. “We’ve kept the look and the feel that’s made Chin Chin what it is, but we’ve given it a few new edges.”
Lucas felt it was the right time for a rethink of the business, adapting and updating the restaurant while it’s still at the height of its popularity. “Five years is a long time in the restaurant business,” he says. “We’re brave enough to anticipate things rather than follow, or be forced into situations.”
The fit-out’s not all that’s changed in the restaurant. Executive chef Benjamin Cooper has been editing the menu for the past 12 months and has ditched about 30 per cent of the existing dishes for some new recipes.
At the reopening tonight he’ll introduce a new barbeque section that’ll feature classic gai yang (Thai-style grilled chicken), Wagyu rump cap and barbeque pumpkin and broccolini. There’ll be Thai dim sum, new salads, stir-fries and noodle dishes. “I’ve tried to ensure we’ve delivered a really good cross section of dishes that people would see on the streets when they’re travelling,” says Cooper. “For me, that’s a big part of why I cook – you’re creating memories, right?”
“The classics definitely stayed,” Cooper says. “If we removed the massaman, or the sashimi, or the soft-shelled crab, or the barra salad, I think there’d be some level of mutiny.”
Behind the scenes one of the most substantial changes to the Lucas Group is the appointment of Philip Rich, who is, without exaggeration, one of the most respected people in Australian wine. Apart from founding the Prince Wine Store he’s managed the enormous cellar at Circa and Stokehouse, continues to work as a wine journalist for the Australian Financial Review, is the chair of the Yarra Valley Wine Show, and regularly judges wine competitions.
Apart from training a new generation of sommeliers at Chin Chin, he’s working on educating the entire group. “Everyone is being re-trained in the culture of wine, from kitchen staff through to head office,” says Lucas. “We’re creating our own wine school within the group, so we’re going to be bringing on young people who want to learn about wine.”
Of course, Rich has changed the Chin Chin wine list, adding leftfield-yet-approachable aromatics such as Ochota Barrels’ gewürztraminer by the glass. But his biggest influence has been on GoGo, the bar that, until now, has served Chin Chin’s overflow – a place to wait out the long line with a Negroni.
Rich suggested to Lucas that GoGo have its own wine list, one that focused on smaller producers that make wines in tiny quantities, a list that changes weekly, if not daily. Lucas was suspicious, but intrigued. “It could be a bit of a hassle from an administrative point of view,” he admits. “But then, I really liked the idea.”
So, as of today, GoGo is now a cutting-edge wine bar, with unusual drops available by the glass from wineries such as Dormilona and Rieslingfreak. Also available is Matt Harrop’s Silent Way pinot, which is made on his family vineyard in Kilmore. “We can only get 10 dozen of that – it might last a week, it might last a month, and then we’ll find something else,” Rich explains.
Fans of the old GoGo should know: this GoGo is a completely new (and much better) bar. “The bar was a bit of an afterthought when we first opened,” Lucas admits. “This was an opportunity to start with a blank canvas.”
Everything in it is entirely new: banquettes run the length of the eastern wall; new hand-crafted panelling trims the room; new lighting is made of brass; the bars were stripped and rebuilt with stone and copper; the music system’s been turned up to 11, and every glass in the place is squeakingly new.
GoGo has shifted from a venue that felt like second prize compared with a table upstairs to a VIP experience. The 10-seat booths can be booked in advance, offering the chef’s table experience. Bar snacks are available, as is the Chin Chin menu proper. “Chin Chin is an egalitarian, Asian food-hall concept,” explains Lucas. “I wanted GoGo to not be a secondary experience. I wanted it to almost be a superior experience.”
By staying ahead of the curve, Lucas believes Chin Chin can remain among the most feverishly popular of Melbourne’s restaurants. “We were one of the early restaurants here, along with Coda and Cumulus, and since that time there’s been so many other great new restaurants open. To a certain extent, we owe it to the area to make the product the best we can,” he says. “If people are imitating what we’re doing, it’s raising the bar for everyone, and that’s a good thing. All boats rise together.”
To celebrate Chin Chin’s renovation and the radical relaunch of GoGo, the restaurant will host a lavish party with DJs and entertainers from 5pm tonight. There’ll also be a chance to win door prizes (signed cookbooks and catered banquets) for people who arrive before 6.30pm. All diners on the night will go into the draw to skip the queue and win bookings for a year as well as a chef’s table experience for 12 guests.
125 Flinders Lane, Melbourne