The End. It’s a strange place to start, but in order for a new story to unfold, it’s necessary to first finish the previous one.
It was a grey day when we dropped into Pier for a farewell chat, but even in the drizzle it still looked stunning in its prized location. The clouds may have hung heavily with the incoming rain, but light still played on the water as the iconic dining room stretched out over Rose Bay.
When the news that chef and owner Greg Doyle was stepping down after 21 years was announced, the media went into a spin. In what has been publicised as an increasingly difficult climate for the hospitality industry, the reports suggested dire days for Pier and rumours swirled of another spectacular exit from the dining scene. But those who have seen it all before recognised that this was not an untimely departure for the chef and his seafood-focused fine diner, but rather an opportunity to evolve and give Pier a new incarnation – one that would fit the emerging dining scene and allow for a new chapter in the venue’s story.
Indeed, it’s here that the silver lining emerged. Pier was not closing. Rather, Doyle was passing the baton to his daughter Jacqui Lewis and her agency FOLKE, in preparation for a new era, with chef Steven Skelly at the helm of the menu when the doors were to reopened, inscribed with the signature of The Sailors Club.
The renovation schedule was tight, giving the team a total of 14 days to strip out the fittings that had made Pier so distinctive and re-imagine the site with a whole new look – one that is a far cry from the sedate and rarefied atmosphere that was Pier.
Whilst the bones of the restaurant would remain the same, key adjustments to the layout included a vibrant new colour scheme and Parisian-style seating to have everyone facing the water. And it all had to live up to the location.
The Beginning. When we returned to look at the new space less than two weeks later, the transformation was evident from the moment the canary yellow front doors swing open. Walls have been shifted, banquette seating added and the private functions area has been opened up to become a breezy, relaxed lounge. Lewis’s enthusiasm is evident in the details – from the feature furniture pieces sourced especially for the project, to the yellow chino and white polo shirt combos of the staff and the bright turquoise strip along the ceiling.
“The design is very much inspired by Slim Aarons photography and that era of the 50s and 60s,” enthuses Lewis. “Palm Springs from an aesthetic point of view and the Parker Hotel.”
There’s a sense of fresh luxury. Appropriate, given the very deliberate makeover that has taken place. Luggage doubles as tables, twisted rope stools are dotted about and there’s a new deck that just begs for the arrival of warmer weather so we can take in sunsets and cocktails en plein air.
One of the biggest changes has been to the menu. Having set the standard in Sydney seafood dining for over two decades, the team have completely changed the direction of the menu, and it has caused jitters. For a start, it’s no longer focused on seafood and, as a flow-on from that, the layout of dishes is squarely placed in the realm of all day, any day dining. It’s something that head chef Steven Skelly has looked forward to with equal parts trepidation and excitement.
“The brief was The Talented Mr. Ripley, that era,” said Skelly, thumbing through the pages of the menu. “Low maintenance. We don’t want people to be polarised by this food. We want it to be accessible and non confrontational; stuff that you’d like to eat yourself on any day of the week.”
Retaining his post from the Pier kitchen, there have been mixed emotions for Skelly. On the one hand, he has said goodbye to some dishes that he worked hard to perfect and had grown incredibly fond of, while on the other, The Sailors Club is a chance to dive into food that the fine dining banner had previously kept at arm’s length.
“We had to make sure it didn’t have a cheffy kind of ego behind it,” says Skelly with a rueful grin. “That was the biggest thing for me to let go when we first talked about changing Pier. There was this moment of ‘But I’m a fine dinning chef...’” he continues, throwing his hands up in mock horror. “But stepping away from that was the challenge and it’s something I’ve really enjoyed.”
As a result The Sailors Club menu offers a carefully crafted selection of dishes that cover a broad range of dining styles, from relaxed lunches and full dinners to light snacks, share plates or even dessert parties. And there’s breakfast and brunch on offer for the weekend. Grilled tuna burgers rub shoulders with duck confit and sugar cured ocean trout, while white anchovies on toast, oysters with bread and butter or crudo of John dory with char-grilled chillies and blood orange nod to the immaculate seafood heritage of the space.
The team worked with one question in mind as they made plans for the venue and menu. “It was simply: ‘Would we like to come and eat this ourselves, any day of the week’,” says Lewis, drawing attention to the new tone of everyday dining.
“It’s a more customised experience now,” she continues. “You can nick in at 4pm and have a tuna burger and a Sapporo on tap, or you can come in on a weekend and have a breakfast ham and gruyere omelette, but you can also pop in for a coffee or come by in the afternoon for champagne and oysters before you go on somewhere else.”
And here’s where Lewis hits on the shift that has impacted so much of the hospitality industry of late. “We studied how people were dining in Sydney now and with the advent of social media, there’s a lot of checking-in here, and ‘Oh, I’m just round the corner so I’ll pop in and see you’. We wanted to make sure that people could join one another on the spur of the moment. We didn’t want to have people so locked into their dining experience.”
According to Lewis, it’s no longer simply about an 8pm dinner reservation and that’s all. “It’s important to recognise that the pattern of spending has changed,” she posits. “It’s not that people necessarily go out less in this climate. We don’t want to go out with less frequency, it’s just that we are looking to spend less.”
And in amongst these changes, one secret weapon has yet to be revealed: pastry chef Nic Waring, fresh from an inspirational trip to NYC.
“The way the dessert menu is designed is for the descriptions to be extremely understated,” says Waring, and it has to be said that the blurbs simply can’t do his playful new dessert dishes justice. “Doing the desserts for Pier for the last year and a half you have to stick to a stream of fine dining and there’s a lot of things that this restrains. But with Sailors there’s a lot more room for fun, for the whimsical and the surprising.”
And so far, sweets including a blood orange float with buttermilk curd, or the stylised strawberries and crème fraiche are enough to have diners dropping in purely for a dessert course.
“The float is a modern take on a spider, with buttermilk custard in the bottom, an aerated blood orange consomme and freeze-dried orange and beetroot sherbet, so it’s all fizzy.”
It’s certainly a change from anything that has gone before and you can feel the team’s collective excitement with every dish and detail.
So now that we’ve said a proper farewell to Pier and The Sailors Club has cruised into the dock, you’ll find us sipping cocktails and soaking up the spectacular location and view all the way to summer. It's the perfect spot to ponder, and should you wish to moor your boat nearby, the team may even be able to ferry some of their fabulous new menu out to you. Well, at least we can dream, right?
The Sailors Club
594 New South Head Road, Rose Bay
Mon to Fri noon–late
Sat & Sun 8am–late