Bennelong restaurateur John Fink plays guitar inside the empty shells of the Opera House restaurant. Neil Perry sits in the cavernous Rockpool Bar & Grill dining room surrounded by sheets of plastic instead of diners. And Lankan Filling Station’s O Tama Carey stares defiantly at the camera, her restaurant full of cardboard boxes for takeaway. These are some of the scenes from Sydney’s restaurant closures during lockdown, captured by photographer Nikki To.
“One night I was thinking, this is such a crazy time, and there would just be so many empty, deserted restaurants lying dormant in Sydney,” says To, who has spent years shooting Sydney’s top restaurants, including for Broadsheet. “And then the next day, I was talking to Lennox Hastie from Firedoor. He was like, ‘There’s so many empty restaurants around, you should shoot them.’ And I was like, that’s so weird. It must be a sign.”
To began her photographic series of Sydney’s shuttered restaurants, which she’s named Hours Unopened, by shooting Hastie. She’s also captured Greek restaurant The Apollo, mezcal bar Cantina Ok! and Cafe Paci among others. Each shoot features the venue’s chef or owner, alone in the closed restaurant. Hastie is shown sitting in his empty Surry Hills restaurant, the woodfired oven he usually cooks with extinguished. Carey’s narrow Darlinghurst eatery, usually buzzing with customers, is quiet and instead filled with takeaway boxes and the pantry items she was selling during lockdown.
“I guess [taking the photos] interested me from an architectural perspective,” To says. “Thinking about somewhere like Bennelong or Rockpool, the grandeur of it all. They’re such crazy big spaces. I just started with the spaces. But then I realised it’s important to have a human aspect to it. I can’t shoot the whole restaurant team, so I’d just shoot someone.”
To says it was important for her to show that the restaurant owners and chefs were fighting back. “Normally I’m shooting someone for a reason, for a portrait to celebrate a new opening. For this, it was quite a sad photo; I wanted them to exude some sort of resilience. It was the worst time ever, but they were still pushing through it. It wasn’t like anyone I had shot had given up.
“There’s this sense of strength in their portraits that I hope becomes more amplified looking back when restaurants are starting to open.”
Hours Unopened can be found on To’s Instagram page.