When Darlinghurst institution Red Lantern reopened after lockdown it had a fresh lease on life.

As well maintaining Red Lantern’s thriving drive-through banquet service, chef and co-owner Mark Jensen spent much of the shutdown refreshing both the beloved Vietnamese eatery’s dining room and its menu, aiming to recapture the vibrant street-food spirit for which it first became known.

“I wanted to pump some energy back into the joint,” says Jensen, who opened Red Lantern’s first iteration on Crown Street in 2002 with co-founders Luke and Pauline Nguyen. “I think people have kind of forgotten about us. I’m tired of running into people who say that they love the restaurant, and I ask them when they last came, and they say, ‘When you were still on Crown Street.’ We moved to Darlinghurst almost 10 years ago.”

The refreshed space evokes the tropical, worn-in glamour of Vietnam’s cities: lush foliage bursts from pots throughout the dining room, signature red lanterns create a moody crimson glow and a new bar space offers punters a spot for after-work drinks.

Jensen says the renewed focus on street food is appropriate for Sydney’s al fresco-led post-lockdown recovery. But it also presents an opportunity to reintroduce more traditional Southeast Asian flavours, which his kitchen had moved away from to please a broader market.

“There’s a dish that I’m putting on the bar menu which uses fermented fish sauce,” he says of a new item that sees capsicums filled with pork, dill and makrut lime before being grilled. “The fish sauce is quite pungent, but the other ingredients subdue that fermented flavour, so it’s authentic but also approachable.

“I’d really pulled back on those strong flavours, but now I’ve found a way that I can use them and not alienate people. People familiar with the cuisine will really identify with these dishes.”

Other examples of the new pared-back menu include banh khot, small turmeric pancakes topped with tiger prawns and shallot oil, and the Northern Vietnamese staple banh cuon, steamed rice noodles wrapped around wood-ear mushrooms and pork mince.

The drinks list too has been reinvigorated, with batched cocktails highlighting yet more Southeast Asian flavours. Jensen’s favourite? A summer-ready mix of makrut lime-infused vodka, ginger liqueur, lychee liqueur and coconut water called the Femme Fatale, available both to those dining in the venue and those ordering takeaway via the drive-through.

Jensen doesn’t see enthusiasm for the lockdown-era drive-through waning. And The Cut Barbershop and Gentlemen’s Collective, which operates from Red Lantern’s private dining room during daylight hours, continues to go strong.

“Ultimately, I just wanted to get fresh eyes on the place and figure out how to be as multifaceted as possible,” says Jensen. “I’m keen to steer it away from being a fine-dining experience and make it an inviting mix of delicious street food, cocktails and music, as well turning the restaurant into an eclectic house of creativity.

“It’s just about trying to stay relevant in a constantly changing world.”

Red Lantern
60 Riley Street, Darlinghurst
(02) 9698 4355

Tue to Sat 4pm–late