“It’s been a big year for dining in Australia.”
So begin so many of the restaurant round-ups that get launched into internet this time of year. (And if your correspondent is being honest, he’s reached for this convenient – albeit often accurate – opening on more than one occasion in the past). This year, though, the sentence seems particularly true, not least because Melbourne hosted the 2017 edition of the controversial World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards.
Whether you treat this annual restaurant countdown as gospel or question its relevance – we like to think our measured enthusiasm puts Broadsheet somewhere in the middle – it’s hard to argue that bringing the awards down under was good news for the Australian restaurant industry. While Attica was voted best restaurant in Australasia for the fifth year in a row, the pride of Ripponlea was joined on the main list by Brae, Dan Hunter’s destination diner in Birregurra. Sydney dining stalwart and long-time member of the list Quay charted at number 95 on this year’s countdown.
Interestingly, Attica made its debut on the main list in 2013: the year after chef Ben Shewry released Origin, his debut cookbook. Brae’s entry to the list coincided with the release of Hunter’s first cookbook. This year, Aaron Turner of Igni joined the ranks of chefs-turned-cookbook-authors. Coupled with the strong attention surrounding his Geelong restaurant during 50 Best, could Victoria be positioned to have another restaurant on the influential list? (Out of shot: introvert Turner grimacing and uttering some unprintables).
Having said that, 2017 has been just as notable for the number of operators thinking small and opening venues in suburban areas outside of traditional eating and drinking precincts. While Sydney and Melbourne both boast long histories of non-CBD hospitality activity, we’ve seen other capitals around the country get in on the action. Among the areas of note: South Brisbane in Queensland, Port Adelaide in South Australia, and Maylands in Perth. While the dewy-eyed might point to this activity as proof of an increasing sense of community, realists are more likely to highlight access to a captive audience and lower operating costs as catalysts for the trend. Both camps have their points.
I’ll also be remembering the past 12 months as the year, more than ever, that restaurants focussed as much on the industry as they did the hospitality. From addressing gender inequality to banning plastic in kitchens and starting funeral arrangement for the 70-hour, 10-day work week, restaurateurs are making serious strides towards fixing the less-glowing aspects of the culture. Here’s hoping it continues, and that diners and drinkers support their efforts.
While our relationships with Japanese cuisine and regional Italian food grows exponentially, more operators are looking inwards toward Australian culture – milk bars, pies, toasted sangers – for inspiration. While imported wines will always be part of the local drinking landscape, the amount of Australian-made content in our glasses is on the rise. A good part of this, it’s fair to say, is down to the growing interest generated by what the industry might have once called “natural” wines: off-beat wines notable for their drink-now deliciousness, quirky names and colourful branding. While it’s great the sector’s growth is (re?)introducing more drinkers to the pleasures of drinking locally made grape juice, let’s not be so quick to dismiss the industry’s veterans out-of-hand. It’s a competitive marketplace out there: Australian winemaking’s old guard commands a following for a reason.
In short: 2017 was something of a red-letter year for the industry. Like everyone, we’re going to have to wait to see how the past 12 months are going to shape the next, but the signs are promising. Remember: diners are one of the most crucial parts of the dining industry. At the risk of coming across all la-di-da, every time you eat – or Instagram something – you’re making a political statement. Do you post that horrifying and calorific freakshake simply “for likes”, or are you going to invest those dollars somewhere serving wholesome, unphotogenic food made using (actual) locally grown ingredients?
Like we were saying, it’s been a massive year for eaters in Australia. Let’s all chip in and keep the good times going.