While many of Sydney’s restaurants are slowly waking up from the city’s Covid-19 hibernation, there are still question marks hovering above some. And The Boathouse on Blackwattle Bay – an icon of Sydney’s seafood scene – is one of them.
We were alerted to the situation by a couple of concerned customers (and Broadsheet readers) who’d noticed the restaurant’s radio silence since the lockdown began in March. (We often receive emails from readers with feedback and tips about restaurants we’ve covered.) They said they’d tried calling with no success; the website was down; the tables and chairs were packed away; and there were no glasses hanging in the bar. It prompted us to investigate – was one of Sydney’s most enduring fine diners gone for good?
“Honestly, I wish I had an answer,” says Colin Barker, who’s been the head chef for the past 13 years.
In March, the Boathouse and its landlord reached an impasse with a new long-term lease negotiation. The lockdown didn’t just put that conversation on ice, it totally quashed it. Restaurant owner Tony Papas made the call to shut the place until an agreement was reached, but that day may never come. For Barker, who’s spent the last five years trying to buy into the business as an owner, it was a crushing blow.
“The whole intention is that if we get granted the lease then I will go into partnership with Tony,” says Barker. “But at the moment no one in the building has got a lease agreement. I’m very invested in the place; I love it. It’s been a part of my life for a very, very, very long time and I’d love to see it back but … it kind of is the perfect storm. Everything just hit at the exact same time. And it’s left us in a pretty average situation.”
The Boathouse opened in 1997 with glistening views over Blackwattle Bay, the city skyline and Anzac Bridge, but because it wasn’t near the main harbourside dining destinations, it remained one of the most underrated waterside restaurants in Sydney. It served outstanding seafood – the fish pie was legendary, and it was one of the best places in the state to eat oysters (two decades of business meant it could source the best molluscs).
“If and when [a new lease agreement] happens, I’m not sure – that probably doesn’t give you a great deal of clarity, but that’s all I’ve got unfortunately,” Barker says.
“I’m very much in the same situation as all these people who want to see the restaurant back.”