Shopping centre dining has gained a bit of media attention of late and the scale of difference has been vast. We’ve seen the disappointing collapse of Justin North’s Becasse at Westfield Sydney, while almost concurrently, queues have streamed from the popular new Ippudo Ramen chain and funky Senyai restaurant at Regent’s Place.
So what makes shopping centre dining a success or a failure, and will it every really work in Australia? Are we trying to replicate a culture in Asia that works over there, but that us Aussies just can’t get their heads around?
Westfield Sydney, to take one example, has attracted some big names. From chefs Alessandro Pavoni of Spiedo and David Tsirekas’s Xanthi, to the soon-to-be-open Jones the Grocer. The restaurants themselves are beautifully designed to blend seamlessly into their designated spaces. They also tout some wonderful food, as well as parking and the chance to browse the latest Miu Miu pumps while awaiting your dining buddy. But are they really pulling in the big bucks?
According to Rachele Godridge, manager central Sydney for Westfield, they are. “The dining precinct is one of our busiest areas in terms of foot traffic. The CBD was in need of a premium food offering, which we have been able to deliver, and we’re continuing to evolve our offering and work with our retailers to ensure we’re meeting the demands of Sydney’s food-savvy diners,” she says.
A new promotion launched by Westfield Sydney this month, The Chefs Club, offers happy hour-esque promotions on Friday nights at some of its top restaurants. Maybe this is exactly the kind of ploy that will get Sydneysiders out of the ever-busy food court and upstairs to the restaurants.
Matt Fitzgerald, head chef of El Topo at Westfield Bondi Junction (formerly of high-end restaurants Bentley Restaurant & Bar and The Bathers’ Pavilion), has already adapted his food and pricing to match his new customer base. He says that making a conscious decision to create more attainable, sharable dishes at a better price point than what is set at his usual fine dining venues is what really works for his shopping centre clientele.
He also finds being in the centre a double-edged sword. “Being in a shopping centre certainly brings new customers in, with many people wandering in between shopping and watching movies that haven’t necessarily heard of us until the moment they walked past,” he says. “And we’ve been consistently busy since we opened. On the other hand, some people read the address and see Westfield and are put off immediately. It’s a fine line.”
On the more boutique end of the scale, chef and owner of Pendolino in the Strand Arcade on Pitt Street, Nino Zoccali, says that the genre of each centre has a great impact on its success. In his opinion, the Strand Arcade is seen as an iconic, historic building, ahead of being considered a shopping centre. The fact that guests can enter the restaurant without having to walk among the shops is a point that encourages his diners return to the restaurant again and again.
“High-end restaurants are challenging to [succeed] in modern shopping centres, as it’s just not yet in the Australian psyche to dine in a mall, as it is in places like Asia and the Middle East,” says Zoccali. “Australians like to use modern shopping centre outlets in a certain way and at a certain price point, which works for the likes of Chat Thai and other chain restaurants, but when it comes to hatted restaurants, it’s a different matter.”
Group Marketing Manager for the Strand Arcade, Taryn McGurk, agrees that restaurants do work in their centre and play a big part in the building’s heritage. The public perception of them is very accepting. “From the earlier eras when the Strand Arcade’s restaurants attracted a colourful crowd and made the arcade the place to be, to now, we have found restaurants to be a very successful way to draw people into the arcade, or give them a reason to stay longer,” she says.
So the future of shopping centre dining still remains unknown, but what we do know is that Sydneysiders will only part with their hard-earned cash for the right venue, at the right price. Tough crowd.