No one goes to the tennis for the food. To see international athletes performing at their best? Definitely. To cheer on locals, get a suntan and buy an oversized novelty tennis ball? Sure. But food? Not really.
This year that will change. In recognition of Melbourne’s insatiable appetite for quality dining, the Australian Open has attracted some of the city’s most in-demand restaurants to its 2017 event.
“It’s cool you don’t have to be the biggest tennis fan to get amongst it,” says Simon Blacher, co-owner of Tokyo Tina, Hanoi Hannah and Saigon Sally. “These kinds of events now are just as much about the social aspects as they are about the sport.”
Tokyo Tina will be one of the vendors at the AO Festival – a new precinct set up at Birrarung Marr adjacent to the competition at Rod Laver Arena and surrounds, which runs from January 16-29.
The festival will be split into two parts: a lower terrace will be a tennis-focused environment, with giveaways and other activities. The upper terrace will feature bands, bars, and food pop-ups, including Jimmy Grants, Huxtaburger, and Mamasita-offshoot, Hotel Jesus.
Having only opened in September 2016, this will be Hotel Jesus’s first festival appearance. Matt Lane, owner of Hotel Jesus and Mamasita, says his team has created a special menu to accommodate the large crowds. “No one likes waiting in line for 30 minutes to order, then waiting another 30 minutes for their food,” says Lane. Hotel Jesus will offer three nacho options: chicken, chorizo and vegetarian.
“Nachos are a great festival option because they’re easy to share,” says Lane. “Which is pretty much what you want when in good company watching the tennis.”
Windsor-based Tokyo Tina will serve a festival-ready creation of Japanese street-food not available in-house. “We keep our pork-belly bao dish especially for festivals,” says Blacher. “It’s a great crowd pleaser.”
To accommodate the traditional January heat, Tokyo Tina will also offer its popular (and gluten-free) salmon poke dish, with avocado mousse, mango, coconut, pineapple puree and tamari sauce.
“It’s really summery and fresh,” says Blacher. “I think it’ll suit the mood of the festival nicely.”
New-wave souvlaki vendor Jimmy Grants will also be in attendance, offering a selection of bestsellers including the signature lamb souva, Mr Papadopolous. How popular is it? “At the moment, it’s the number-one selling item on UberEATS, globally,” says James Sutherland, general manager at Jimmy Grants.
Jimmy Grants will also offer vegetarian options, such as the Homer souva with falafels, greek yoghurt and hellenic slaw. For dessert try the Risogalo, a traditional Greek, vanilla-based rice pudding with swirls of caramel and sprinkles of dried apricots and pistachios on top.
The festival is expecting big crowds, so Lane recommends getting in during the day.
“Lunch isn’t nearly as busy as at night,” he says. “It’s such a great spot to be during the day, framed by the banks of the Yarra and the city skyline.”
There’ll also be bean bags and outdoor screens showing the tennis, but whether you’re into the games or not, the AO Festival will be a destination unto itself.
“This is Melbourne being Melbourne,” says Sutherland, “We have higher expectations for sporting events to serve good-quality food.”
This article is presented in partnership with Australian Open.