Once, if you decided to live in Melbourne, part of the trade off for losing the beaches and beer gardens was getting a swathe of exciting new restaurants. These days, being a Sydneysider is no longer a barrier to eating from some of Melbourne’s favourite restaurants.
To be fair, some of the bigger names in dining have opened in Melbourne – Longrain, Rockpool, Toko, Spice Temple. But this year, popular Melbourne ventures are making their way north – Belle’s Hot Chicken and Pei Modern are already here. They are soon to be followed by Shortstop Doughnuts, Chin Chin and Entrecôte.
So what’s spurred this migration? Why are Victorian restaurateurs so keen to open interstate venues? Morgan McGlone, owner and executive chef at Belle’s Hot Chicken, grew up in Sydney’s south, but decamped to Melbourne (via Nashville). He believes the dining scene in Sydney has matured, making moving north a more attractive proposition. “I think it’s really, really exciting,” he says. “There’s a lot of real cool younger guys who I’ve worked with who are opening their own places, Merivale continues to raise the bar, there’s a lot of lateral movement with young chefs and restaurant-owning opportunities.”
Jason M Jones, who is currently looking for a third site for his Parisian-style steakhouse, Entrecôte, in Potts Point, also believes the city’s upped its dining game. “For a long time, Melbourne was leading the pack, but for the first time ever, I believe there’s some pretty exciting restaurants in Sydney,” he says. “I’ve always thought Sydney was the brasher, flashier sister to Melbourne. It was always lagging behind a little bit. But it’s caught up, which is surprising given the issues they’ve had with lockouts.”
For Shortstop Doughnuts, the northward expansion is partly motivated by existing demand. Despite its deeply Melburnian location in an inner-city lane, owner Anthony Ivey reckons a good proportion of his clientele already comes from Sydney. “There’s already a fan base. We just had a huge demand from Sydney,” he says. “There’s hardly a day that goes by without a group coming in and ordering 10, 20, 40 doughnuts at a time that’s jumping on a flight back to Sydney.”
Although an appetite for fashionable food is in some part driving the move, another significant motivating factor is the real-estate market. Developers looking for a point of difference are increasingly turning to trendy restaurants to help market their buildings, offering serious financial incentives to set up shop.
Shortstop, for instance, was approached by Lend Lease to help anchor their development in Barangaroo, an enormous new district on Sydney Harbour. “They put down a pretty good offer to us to be part of it, so we took the opportunity,” says Ivey. “It was always in our longer-term plan to look at Sydney as a destination to open up a shop, but in the end it was a little sooner than we expected.”
McGlone was also offered significant support to bring Belle’s Hot Chicken to Barangaroo. To his mind, it was an opportunity to put a toe in the Sydney waters. “We didn’t have to invest in the shop fit-out or anything like that, which was pretty cool,” he says. “We’ve been offered some crazy, crazy things. These incentives work both ways – obviously it has to be busy. But it certainly helps the bottom line.”
Getting a handle on the local scene is an important aspect of a restaurant’s success. That some of the most popular restaurants in Melbourne are either part of multi-venue businesses or are run by serial restaurateurs is no accident. Understanding your diner is critical. As such, it’s uncertain as to whether a Gertrude Street diner will work on Darlinghurst Road. “I spend a lot of time in Sydney, and I’ve got a lot of mates up there. But I probably don’t know it as well as a Sydneysider,” says Jones. “But I feel confident the sites we’re looking at are the right fit.”
Although Morgan’s an old-school local, he and his partners did their homework before committing to a store. Pop-up services at Icebergs and Hotel Harry proved ridiculously popular, with punters lining up for more than an hour for a bit of deep-fried chook. And, he’s currently serving more than a tonne of chicken at Barangaroo every week. Still, he’s philosophical about whether Belle’s will find a foothold in Sydney. “If I can put it bluntly, with Melbourne clientele, it’s quite hard. But once you capture them, they’re pretty loyal. I think Sydney’s a bit more fickle – they’ll go to the hot new place and it’s harder to maintain their patronage,” he explains. “I’d love for us to be one of those places where people will frequent a lot, but I’m at peace with the idea that maybe in a year’s time we won’t be the hot new place. So you’ve got to do something different.”