“All the bands used to stay here in the ’80s,” Sydney hospitality veteran Barry McDonald says of the old Sebel Townhouse in Elizabeth Bay, which once stood in the spot his elegant new Italian eatery Bar Grazie occupies. “We used to go to all the shows and leave before they ended because we knew the bands would head here. That way you’d get locked in with the band.”
While there are no late-night lock-ins on the cards (for now), Bar Grazie still feels like a place where you can have a lot of fun. It might be the central wooden bar, deep enough to place a dozen oysters, and slightly fewer Martinis. The bar menu was designed by “Miss Martini” Ana Page (The Bar), who knows a thing or two about mixology. And while the space might make you want to lean into a classic Negroni, the menu also includes more inventive inebriants, like the Grazie Spritz (Select Aperitivo, rosemary, prosecco and a citrus sherbet).
McDonald is a well-known man about town. During his years as a provedore in the early ’90s, he supplied fresh produce to fine diners like Quay, Rockpool and Tetsuya’s. But he is best known for founding the OG Fratelli Fresh with his brother in 2004. The fresh food grocer – which expanded to four locations under McDonald, including Potts Point and Alexandria – and its Italian restaurant Sopra, were Sydney institutions and led the way in contemporary Italian dining in Sydney. After selling the business to Urban Purveyor Group (now known as Pacific Concepts) in April 2016, McDonald took some time off before opening Giorgio (since closed) in Potts Point.
And now Bar Grazie.
“I’ve always been in restaurants,” he tells Broadsheet. “And my favourite restaurants are Italian. This one feels very American-Italian. It’s really classic – I didn’t want it to be formal, but I wanted it to be casually luxe.”
The room is a knockout. Designed by George Gorrow (The Slow, Bali), it’s wood-panelled, softly lit and arranged around a central bar that smacks of the gravitas you might find at a handsome New York brasserie like Balthazar. McDonald has assembled a killer team: head chef Jarrard Martin (ex-Rockpool group) is busy on the pans, and the restaurant hums with the seamless service you only get from career waiters, many of whom you’ll recognise from their time at different Sydney institutions over the years.
Both the menu and the soundtrack run classic Italian. And McDonald’s menu isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel. It leans heavily on well-made classics: house-cured salmon served alongside crisp triangle toasts, and saltimbocca made “the Roman way”, with chicken wrapped up in prosciutto and sage. There’s a rib eye for two, and a selection of pasta staples, including pappardelle with Wagyu bolognaise sauce, and lamb ragu slow-cooked overnight and served on rigatoni. Desserts are by no means an afterthought – a Basque cheesecake and a brick of tiramisu are masterfully executed classics.
“Coming from a background in produce, I don’t mess around with ingredients,” says McDonald. “I stay very classic and focus on using what’s in season.”
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