Two suavely dressed hosts attend to the ground-floor elevators at 80 Collins, between which “Society” is etched in big block letters. They’re all smiles (behind their masks) despite the wind tunnel. As are we. After four years – and five lockdowns – Society is here.
It’s a creative collaboration between leading Melbourne restaurateur Chris Lucas (Chin Chin, Baby Pizza, Kong, Hawker Hall, Kisumé), and chef Martin Benn and front-of-house star Vicki Wild (the duo behind Sydney’s internationally regarded Sepia).
It’s opening night and we have the walk-ins-only bar and lounge in our sights. We’re escorted up to level two, and as the shiny doors slide open, we’re greeted immediately. Our elevator escort lets the staff know we’re after a drink; they whisk away our jackets and within minutes we’re at the angular marble bar on stools carved from fallen tree trunks. To our right is the lounge area, with a smoky mirrored ceiling, plush horseshoe-shaped chairs and a curvaceous banquette – another spot that requires no reservation.
To the left, though, is the main event: the dining room. Three colossal chandeliers (made from more than 3000 hand-cut crystals) hang from the sky-high ceiling. They mimic the curves of the charcoal booths and jet-black tables below. Outside is a balcony cosied up by big, bell-shaped heaters – one of Society’s many unexpected spaces that sneak up on you.
Another is the filled-to-the-brim wine cellar, where Lucas Restaurants’ all-round beverage director Loic Avril (ex-Fat Duck and Dinner by Heston Blumenthal) stores a chunk of the 10,000-plus listed bottles. One by-the-glass list features 40 significant vintages of renowned wines, tapped via vacuum-sealed Coravin machine so they can also be sold in single glasses. At the top end of the scale is a $45,000 1945 Chateau d’Yquem Sauternes from Chris Lucas’s personal collection. That said, house pours start at $13 at the bar.
Night one happens to coincide with the first Friday out of lockdown 5.0. And Melbourne has turned out – and dressed up. Benn’s bite-sized caviar pretzel (served with an Ossetra caviar Martini) sells out early. We sip Olive Leaf Gin Martinis and Gibsons made with jalapeno-infused vermouth from silver trays. Paradoxically, one of our city’s best assets is its ability to make you feel like you’re someplace else. But, tonight, it’s all about Melbourne.
“The first night at Society, there was a really special energy,” Lucas tells Broadsheet, reflecting. “The food was beautiful, and the staff were so excited to be actually opening the restaurant. There was just this sense of positivity. That’s why we called it Society, right? It’s … such a beautiful name because it’s about what makes the city great.
“I’ve always said that we do restaurants as good as anywhere else in the world. The vision of Society, before this whole pandemic started, was to do something special that hasn’t been done before in Australia … but that also champions all the talent that’s [here].”
Benn’s menu is a product of both his laser-sharp attention to detail and mastery in Japanese-style cooking, but it’s undoubtedly inspired by Melbourne. “Part of the Society menu is a reimagining of Sepia, brought into a different incarnation to suit the style of the experience we are offering in Society,” Benn says. The Metropolis dessert, for example, is an evolution of Chocolate Forest Floor, one of Benn’s most famous Sepia dishes, now with an iridescent, angular blue shell that references Society’s facade.
One of the few advantages of a timeline constantly extended was it allowed Benn to recipe-test, refine and revisit his opening line-up of dishes. It has resulted in a dish pairing a rondel of finely diced albacore with rhubarb and shiso, a Japanese herb. Maple, a dessert, is a cluster of edible leaves in a jelly pool flavoured with sauternes, a French dessert wine.
“Society is more robust than Sepia … but still as detailed, balanced and technical,” Benn continues. “You will see and taste the Japanese energy that has participated in all my cooking for years, from flavour to plating.”
Beyond the lounge’s adjoining wine cellar is a second, more casual restaurant – the Lillian Terrace – which opens this Friday. “[It’s] more nostalgic for me, with a more European style,” Benn says. “Dishes like charcoal-roasted crown of chicken and the lamb leg touch on those early days, but with the detail and knowledge of today.”
While Melbourne-based architects Russell & George fitted out Society in a moody palette of blacks and charcoals, Lillian is more timber, tanned leather and soft, tasselled lights. It’s still awfully smart, with a David Noonan jacquard tapestry taking pride of place. Outside, an L-shaped terrace looks out onto the rooftops of Collins Street.
There are also a few impressive private dining rooms. Perhaps most so is one with 20 green velvet chairs and a spotted-gum table. A hunk of white-swirled black marble sits at one end, while hidden behind it – in what looks like a rudimentary cupboard – is a state-of-the-art kitchen. Tucked alongside two of the other private dining rooms, which can join together, is a small bar where diners can escape for a quick time-out.
But both Benn and Lucas are adamant that, despite Society’s fine-dining facade, there are no rules here. You could conceivably share a main and a few starters before a drink at the bar, or go all-out with Southern Rock lobster and Ossetra caviar. “The whole idea was to create a dining experience where guests can curate their own experience,” says Benn. “We want it to be a la carte, but not restrictive and with no rules about ordering.”
That sense of freedom flows into the bar, where cocktails are overseen by 2018 World Class Bartender of the Year, Orlando Marzo. Classics start at $26, or they’re $145-plus when made with vintage spirits from as far back as the ’50s. While everything about Society feels opulent, it’s balanced with approachability.
Marzo’s behind-the-bar enthusiasm is contagious, especially when he grates chocolate over a creamy Cafe Noisette, made with 23-year-old Zacapa rum, cold-brew coffee, cherry, almond and wattleseed. It’s served with the house’s take on a Ferrero Rocher, gold-brushed, and ordered as a finisher by almost everyone sitting at the bar.
Finally making it here, roadblocks conquered, Lucas says there’s a palpable sense of pride among the staff. “The hospitality sector is in a dark place around the world, so – in a way – Melbourne and Society are a little bit of a shining light for the industry. I’m not trying to be grandiose about it. Sadly, it’s a fact, and so I think it’s a seminal moment for the city.”
When asked what Society might look like in a year’s time, Benn is hesitant to speculate given the pandemic’s unpredictability, but he hopes it feels like a “coming home” for regulars. And that Society can actually welcome international guests. “The whole place was designed to have a feeling of belonging to the city, a feeling of permanence,” he says. “And while it’s new, I hope that in a year’s time, it feels like it has always been there.”
80 Collins Street, Melbourne
Mon to Thu 5pm–late
Fri to Sun 12pm–late