Potato salad isn’t supposed to taste this good. Or rather, it’s not supposed to look like it does at Pilot. It’s usually a side dish, all potato-chunky, whole egg-garnished and cold. Here it’s warm, made with roast-potato cream, chives, radishes and compressed apples. It’s also – wait for it – potato-less.

Now, I don’t like to carry on, but carry on I will about this new 30-seat diner in Ainslie, a suburb just north of Canberra. Just ask any of my colleagues or Pilot’s co-owner Dash Rumble. “That’s so nice,” Rumble kindly says after I tell her, probably for the fourth time, how I’d move in if I could. Taking a seat on the bottle green velvet banquette is pretty much all I want to do now.

Sliding open Pilot’s barn-like, timber door and stepping inside is like collapsing into the arms of a great mate. They’re forgiving (and informative) when you don’t understand something and willing to pour you a taste of a drink when you can’t decide.

Pilot serves extremely delicious food. The head chef is Malcolm Hanslow, who has a string of top Sydney restaurants in his resume, including Automata, Oscillate Wildly and Ester. (He was also shortlisted for the 2018 Josephine Pignolet Young Chef of the Year award.)

It stocks exclusively Australian booze and its dining room, fitted out by local design firm Capezio Copeland, is a sight for sore eyes. It’s accessible enough that your parents will enjoy it, but haute enough that you know you should probably keep your mitts off the fine-mesh curtain (which is very fancy and is steamed every day due to a red-wine spill early on).

“We want to push people a little bit and make them slightly uncomfortable, but still make sure they feel like they’re eating at a friend’s house,” says Rumble of the restaurant she co-owns with her partner Ross McQuinn (they worked together at the Canberra fine diner Eighty Six).

Hanslow’s menu changes each week, if not twice, and like all good restaurants it has a focus on locality and seasonality. Flavours are familiar, dishes are complex, but the presentation is almost confusingly simple. As is the menu. Dishes here are listed as “zucchini” or “zippy salad” – zucchini what? Zippy how? If you're like me and that's not quite enough for you to press go that's fine, the staff will explain the ins and outs, and the jellies from the creams. Or you can just see what happens.

On any given day you might find something like Cabbage e Pepe, a dish of soba-like toasted buckwheat spaghetti with cabbage and parmesan sauce and tons of pepper. There’s the aforementioned potato salad, and a piece of meaty kingfish that sits obediently (you’ll know what I mean when you see it) in a bowl of smoked buttermilk sauce with pickled nashi pear.

The extensive list of non-alcoholic drinks (including a fig leaf oil and tonic and a smoked Bloody Mary) are almost good enough to make you want to bypass a glass of pet-nat, although they’ve got plenty of those too.

A note on pretentiousness: there’s not a skerrick of it here. There’s also no ego and no extortionate price tags. Plates are cleared after every dish, but sometimes you’ll have you eat with your fingers or share a bowl with your tablemate and that’s okay.

You’ll feel like you’re sitting at Ester or Melbourne’s Embla, but you’re not. You’re in our country’s capital. These guys know what they’re doing, so when Rumble says, “We just want people to come here and trust us”, you should.

So, for the love of good food, good times and service that feels like a big ol’ hug, head to this humble diner. But for flip’s sake, don’t touch the curtain, Dash steams it everyday, remember?

Shop 1 Wakefield Gardens, Ainslie, Canberra

Wed to Sat 6pm till late
Sun 12pm–3.30pm


This article first appeared on Broadsheet on April 4, 2019. Menu items may have changed since publication.