Opening a new venue is stressful at the best of times, but have it coincide with a global pandemic and an announcement by the Australian government to restrict all non-essential travel and business and it’s diabolical. Here’s how four brand new venues responded to the colossal setback.
Above Par, CBD
“We opened on the day the restrictions came in,” Ozgur Sefkatli tells Broadsheet of the off-the-chart bad timing he and Eddie Topuzl experienced opening Above Par, a 70-seater modern Middle Eastern bistro on Clarence Street the CBD.
The duo, who also run The Factory Grind in Surry Hills (and had even planned to open a third venue under new hospitality group Wondrous), decided to persevere with Above Par and convert the business to takeaway. “We thought we still wanted to go ahead with the opening; we couldn’t just not open, because we invested everything. The venue was set, everything was purchased, and we had organised ourselves, so we thought we’d give it a go.”
For now, Sefkatli sees the takeaway option as a teaser for what’s to come when the all-day bistro can welcome dine-in customers. For now, it’s serving house-made gozleme – one with spinach and feta, and one with veal sausage, haloumi and sucuk– as well as bagels and a kofte burgers
“As soon as the restrictions ease, we will launch our full menu, which will have dishes such as hummus with burnt paprika butter, house-made lavash bread, shared meze plates, and wider chargrilled meat options,” he says.
215 Clarence Street, Sydney
Mon to Fri 7am–3pm
Neko Neko, Newtown
March 24 was a day Ricky Murai says he will never forget. “I was supposed to have an opening party, but I cancelled it when I heard about the lockdowns,” says the Neko Neko Newtown owner.
Murai (who formerly owned Neutral Bay’s Jugemu & Shimbashi) was looking forward to the event that would have been the culmination of three years of planning.
He had decided on the predominantly vegan Japanese eatery concept after visiting his friends Saori and Tomoya Kawasaki in Melbourne and their restaurant Neko Neko Fitzory. “When I tried their food, I instantly thought it would be great if Neko Neko came to Sydney,” he says.
The Sydney outpost joins Newtown’s vegan strip, operating not far from Gigi Pizzeria and Lentil As Anything. Like the original, it serves vegan ramen, teikoshu (multi-course) meal sets and curry, as well house-made matcha soy latte. There are also a few pescatarian options too.
While he considers himself as one of the lucky ones who can still stay open, Murai says it’s tough. “It’s very difficult to survive with only takeaway. I spent so much effort on the renovations, so I’m very much looking forward to welcoming customers to dine-in sometime soon,” he says.
Neko Neko Newtown
381 King Street, Newtown
(02) 8056 7705 (or SMS 0401 390 853)
Tue to Sat 12pm–2.30pm, 5.30pm–8.30pm
Little Lagos, Enmore
It’s a similar story for Ade Adeniyi, who decided to make his Nigerian eatery Little Lagos permanent two weeks ago in the former Wish Bone space in Enmore after the success he had as a pop-up at Earl’s Juke Joint.
“We definitely wanted to sit back and wait and see what was going on. But unfortunately, we couldn’t get a deferral on our equipment finance. So it was a situation whereby we’d be paying weekly expenses on equipment. So we said, ‘Look, if we can open up and at least cover the cost of our wages and equipment, then we’re at least surviving,” he says. “We think this is probably the least scary option compared to not opening.”
He decided to roll out the restaurant’s full menu rather than a dialled back version and do takeaway and delivery. “We were like, if we were going to do this, we’re going to do it properly. We still want people to have the full experience,” he says.
For those who know Adeniyi from his pop-ups, he is an advocate for Nigerian food in Sydney – aside from a few home chefs operating backyard takeaway joints, Little Lagos is the only place to eat Nigerian cuisine in this city. He serves jollof rice, goat stew, egusi (a soup made from spinach and melon seeds), Nigerian meat pie and doughnuts known as puff-puff.
“People have been coming out of their way to get our food, like people from the northern beaches, so that’s kept us going and given us a boost of confidence,” Adeniyi says. To cater to the people outside the restaurant’s usual 10-kilometre radius, he’s introduced delivery days for city-wide drop-offs, announced on Instagram.
“We get a lot of people messaging us saying, ‘This looks absolutely delicious, but I live in Penrith or Blacktown and it’s a 45-minute drive’. We thought we should try get out even if it’s once every two months, just so we can let people know we do see their messages and appreciate them reaching out to us,” he says.
125 Enmore Road, Newtown
Thu to Sun 6pm–9pm
“If three months ago we were told one of our first products was going to be hand sanitisers, we’d probably find it pretty laughable,” says co-owner Georgia Conn of St Leonards-based Finders Distillery.
Yet that’s where Conn and fellow co-owner Kyle Ford (head distiller) found themselves – responding to the worldwide demand for products to stop the spread of coronavirus. They had planned to open an onsite tasting bar after they raised some cash via a Pozible campaign, but are now focusing on their digital presence so people can get their hands on their booze.
“For a lot of brands out there, they [already] have the following. For us, we’re trying to reach new people and gain trust that our product is really good without people being able to sample it in a bar or at the distillery,” Conn says.
The partners (in both business and life) sold their home to fund their pride and joy, a 300-litre copper pot hybrid still, which they use to make their small-batch vodka and gin. For the latter they use 100 per cent Australian wheat spirit and nine botanicals.
“The initial idea was for a classic London Dry-style gin – punchy and juniper-forward with a complex and smooth palate. But we also wanted to show off certain local flavours to make this a true North Sydney gin. The end result is an Australian dry gin … with orange peel and chamomile combining to create a delicate floral sweetness, while native gum and wattle seed build a beautifully complex, yet smooth mouth feel.”
Unit 12, 6 Herbert Street, St Leonards