“It can be tricky, and a lot of cafes can’t pull off the nights,” says Sam Smith of Bondi’s Porch Bread & Wine Parlour about its dual role as cafe by day and local eatery by night. “Maybe because they don’t change the mood. And you might need a suburb like Bondi, with a young crowd, and that disposable income for it to work.”
It’s a trend we’re seeing more of in Sydney: cafes that give more, including dinner services to rival many restaurants. Burning the candle at both ends in a cafe environment meets a demand for casual dining after-hours. It also lines up with a rise in small-bar dining that has seen the idea of dinner-out shift to include snacky affairs with a more modest price tag.
Earlier this year, Cornersmith announced it would be open on Friday nights at its popular Marrickville cafe, while Redfern’s Kepos Street Kitchen has raised the bar when it comes to dinner in a casual, cafe-style environment. But it’s no easy task. It involves long hours, extra costs (including staff) and being able to morph a cafe from daytime eatery into an inviting dinner spot.
“We shut from 3pm until 4.30pm to reset and change over,” says Smith. “We need that time to clean up and get ready for the dinner shift.”
There’s a resetting of the tables, with much of the daytime cafe paraphernalia tucked away, and more of a focus on drinks. Even the lighting is changed to establish a softer mood. Doing dinner allows cafe kitchens to flex their creative muscles, moving beyond obvious cafe favourites to more signature-style dishes, creating dinner menus that are their own entities.
“We do a dinner on the first Thursday of the month,” says Katherine Smart of The Pig and Pastry in Petersham, citing the opportunity to draw on chef Iain Smart’s fine-dining background, and to experiment with dishes that fall outside the usual menu.
“We enjoy putting together a more refined menu for dinner. Creating a fine-dining experience in the still-relaxed environment of the cafe, and making it different to what we do during the day,” she says, noting that the monthly, three-course dinners are at a set price and include canapés and drinks.
At Devon in Surry Hills, dinner service is a recent addition, with owner Derek Puah responding to a local interest in relaxed evening dining, where dinner out does not equate to a formal restaurant setting. He also identified a hole in the local market for what he calls Malaysian comfort food, and saw that as a chance to branch out.
But despite the shift towards cafe dining when the sun goes down, after-hours service is certainly not for every cafe. Much depends on the space itself, the location and zoning of the cafe (where restrictions can put a dampener on service), as well as the areas of expertise of the team.
“If you’re good at one thing, then stick to it,” Says Gareth Elliot of Union St Deli in Blues Point. The team here chose not to do an evening service for a combination of reasons, including zoning and kitchen space. Despite regular inquiries by customers, Elliot won’t do evening service. He feels the expectations on even a casual dinner in a cafe environment are still disproportionately high, and that unless the team can really nail it, it’s a risky pursuit. “People are very fussy with their evening meal,” he says. “There’s still an expectation for a certain level of service, even if the food is great. You have to be careful not to bring your name down if you don’t get it 100 per cent right.”
But he does believe that, with more cafes offering relaxed night service, the expectations of the dining public will change. And that it’s already happening. The shift is creating a selection of high-quality dining experiences in unexpected places – and challenging the way we think about (and interact with) cafes, dining and food in our city by night.
Here’s our pick of cafes open for dinner that really get it right:
Devon Cafe: Devon added dinners to its repertoire recently, citing the opportunity to expand the menu. Morphing from day entity to night owl, the team resets the diminutive cafe space to focus on wine and a Malaysian comfort-food dinner menu.
York Lane: By day this tiny, hidden espresso bar offers coffee to the workers of the CBD. Cafe veteran and owner Deiter Steinbusch always planned to have a space that would double as a night-time venue, aiming for a European feel. Evenings offer more of a focus on the wine at this split-level, up-cycled laneway haunt with a selection of drinks and tapas plates. Weekends accommodate private parties, and there are regular DJ evenings.
Porch Wine & Food: Porch closes its doors for one-and-a-half hours to reset the mood, swapping from breezy daytime cafe to intimate and relaxed local night spot with a change in lighting, a change in menu and a tucking-away of the coffee gear that is the daytime stock-in-trade.
Cornersmith: Cornersmith added Friday-night hours in February this year as a result of public demand. After a quick reset, Friday evenings feature shared and tasting plates with local wines and its famous pickles and cheeses.
Kepos Street Kitchen: Ahead of the trend, Kepos Street has had a distinctly dual nature since opening a couple of years ago. It uses the evening service to really show off chef and owner Michael Rantissi’s Mediterranean accented dishes. By day locals queue out the door for The Grounds of Alexandria coffee. By night the dinner menu is more than simple cafe food.
The Pig & Pastry: It might only be doing dinner once a month, but set three-course dinners at the P&P are always booked-out events. Chef Iain Smart exercises his background in fine dining, to create one-off menus centred around seasonal ingredients or particular wines.