The stories that tumble out of Lucio Galletto about some of the livelier diners he’s hosted over the years are just as colourful as the many paintings, sketches and sculptures on the walls of his storied, eponymous Paddington restaurant.

There was the time George Harrison ordered the oysters, only to quip that perhaps he should choose another starter as he was sleeping solo that night. Or the evening Tom Jones requested Lucio’s stay open late so he could dine there after his final Sydney show, only to show up after midnight and stay until 5.30am, enjoying all the best aperitifs, dessert and wine the restaurant had to offer.

“One of the biggest compliments I had was from [Spanish tenor] José Carreras who, after dinner, invited [wife] Sally and me to his concert the following night, and when he left said, ‘I hope you enjoy the concert as much as I enjoyed my dinner here tonight’. We also had Billy Crystal, who was impressed with the dinner and invited us to his show, but luckily he didn’t say the same thing because, well ...” Galletto trails off, chuckling cheekily.

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The artworks themselves make an astonishing gallery, featuring some of the most accomplished names to have emerged from this country, from Sidney Nolan, John Coburn, John Olsen and Charles Blackman to Elisabeth Cummings, Garry Shead, Judy Cassab and Luke Sciberras.

More European-style salon than restaurant – The Independent ranked it as one of the world’s five top restaurants for art – Lucio’s drew everyone from politicians to media personalities, Paddington locals, artists and lovers of art. But now, after 38 years, it’s preparing to shut for good.

“It wasn’t an easy decision to make, very emotional of course, [but] after [almost] a full 40 years we thought it was enough,” Galletto says. On the practical side, the site is in need of a major renovation, and there’s a demanding secondary business in its recently launched bottle shop, deli and takeaway. And the arrival of the pandemic meant the writing was on the wall.

“We thought we’d sell the building, maybe wait another two to three years for our 40th, but then Covid hit – and honestly, we’re lucky to get out when we can,” says Galletto’s wife and business partner Sally Galletto.

The pair met when Galletto was working at his family’s seaside restaurant in the Italian region of Liguria – Sally came to town to visit her sister, who had married his cousin. They married and moved to Sydney, where Galletto opened his first restaurant in Balmain in 1981, before buying the landmark Paddington building in 1983.

Galletto’s art collection started the next year, when Sidney Nolan visited with the cast and crew of the film Burke & Wills, on which he was advising. He so enjoyed his meal he left behind a scribbled visage of his now-famous Ned Kelly on a paper napkin. And so began the tradition of artists being drawn to Lucio’s bonhomie, often donating or selling their artworks to Galletto in appreciation.

Celebrated landscape painter Elisabeth Cummings recalls being invited to Lucio’s some years ago with a group of artist friends, and so enjoying the food, atmosphere and genial owner she frequently returned over the years.

“Lucio was always very warm and welcoming, and of course the food is wonderful, but the atmosphere … places become hubs, groups of us went on special occasions, that was always the place to go,” she says.

Her artist friend Luke Sciberras, also a Lucio’s regular, suggested she donate a work, Autumn Muse 2013 (an abstract oil on canvas she’d painted from memory). And she was among a group of 15 artists Lucio invited to paint a plate to commemorate the restaurant’s 15th birthday.

After Lucio’s booked-out final service on January 30 (even the waiting list is closed, bookings are so over-subscribed), around 200 artworks will be prepared for auction in a sale titled Lucio’s: Food, Art and Friendship. Galletto says he’ll be sad to part with the treasured collection, but he’ll keep some precious pieces in his apartment.

The future is unknown, but the Gallettos hope to find another spot in Sydney’s east to explore their options. This time, though, it won’t be Lucio and Sally managing things, but daughter Michela Galletto, who has proven herself a capable businesswoman and front-of-house manager.

“If our daughter gives us a job we’ll work there,” says Lucio, chuckling. “But we’ll take it easy, we won’t be full-time.”

What will he miss the most when the last bowl of pasta is served? “The people,” he says instantly. “I love people. I’ll miss the dining room and the team. We worked very well together for so many years. The creativity of the chefs, it keeps me young.”

Lucio’s final service will be on January 30. Bookings have closed. A preview of the art auction, Lucio’s: Food, Art and Friendship, will be held from March 17–20 at The Bond in Woollahra. The auction will be held on March 21, also at The Bond. More information here.