Where to Find Australia's Most Beautifully Designed Restaurants

The Playford Hotel

In a time where every meal is a photo op, restaurants are pulling out all the stops to look as good as they taste.

“People come in looking for the lights,” says Steve Finlayson of The Playford in Adelaide. He’s talking about the magnetic, wavy, Art Nouveau-inspired lighting installation that curves across the ceiling of the hotel’s European-style diner, Luma, winner of the Best Overall Bar accolade at the 2023 Restaurant & Bar Design Awards. Of course, people go to the restaurant to eat but the lights – which subtly shift intensity depending on the time of day and even in response to music – attract a lot of phone cameras.

“Design enhances a guest’s experience,” says Finlayson. “When you look at leading-edge restaurants, they’re always very attractive, although the food and service have to match up.”

When so many of us enjoy photographing and sharing our time at restaurants, how they look is arguably more important than ever. But making a space beautiful and memorable goes beyond showstopper centrepieces that stand out on “the Gram”. It’s about creating an atmosphere and giving diners a sense of having stepped outside the ordinary.

Cantonese restaurant Stanley aims to transport you all the way to Hong Kong. “The indoor dining space has meticulous details, such as the handcrafted rattan ceiling, bamboo fretwork-lined walls and banquettes with bespoke fabric,” says Adam Flaskas, who developed the riverside Howard Smith Wharves precinct in Brisbane, where Stanley is located. Artist Desmond Sweeney added to the sense of faraway nostalgia by installing a mural in the restaurant’s stairwell. The faded, dreamlike depiction of Hong Kong’s Stanley Bay perfectly complements the restaurant’s cuisine: wok-tossed seafood and meats, barbecue duck and steamed dumplings.

As well as providing escapism, good design can help people feel as though they’re somewhere entirely familiar. “We aimed to create a ‘home away from home’,” says James Ingram of his recent restoration of the 167-year-old Dry Dock hotel in Sydney’s Balmain. “That’s the essence of any great pub.”

Working with interior architect Bianca Isgro, Transmitt’s lighting designer Shaun Dudley and furniture design studio Inde, Ingram transformed the neglected landmark into the best version of itself. The Dry Dock, which now includes a woodfired restaurant, public bar and cosy lounge area, feels at once fresh, new, solid and grounded. It’s not a facsimile of its former self but a respectful tribute filled with aged zinc bar tops and a working fireplace. “It’s a storied space with a patchwork of finishes that we’ve either restored or reinstated where possible,” says Isgro. “It’s been designed to have that timeless feel. You could be anywhere – or right at home.”

VIC

Rocco's Bologna Discoteca

Rocco’s Bologna Discoteca

When you visit this spirited Italian in Melbourne’s Fitzroy – famous for its cult-status sub sandwiches – you feel like you’ve rocked up to Nonna’s house. Rich timbers, curtains and fun typefaces on everything from the menus to the take-out bags adds to the sense of nostalgia. The team worked with designer Ineke Hutter of Studio Co & Co, who also assisted with Rocco’s sister venue, Poodle Bar & Bistro, which earned a swag of awards for its fit-out.

Yūgen

The exquisite elegance of South Yarra omakase restaurant Yūgen is based on the Japanese concept of godai, the five elements of water, earth, fire, wind and void. You’ll see earth represented in the starkness of the raw materials – natural stone, cracked bluestone paving and concrete – while the fluid chandelier by sculptor Jennifer Conroy Smith nods to water. On the menu, expect Pacific oysters with yuzu, soy and finger lime and Australian Wagyu.

NSW

The Caterpillar Club

The Caterpillar Club

A jazz club needs three things: jazz, obviously, either live or on vinyl; the coolest of cocktails along with late-night snacks; and the right look and feel. Sydney’s Caterpillar Club is the latest from the Swillhouse Group – the hospo hustlers behind Restaurant Hubert, Shady Pines Saloon and Le Foote – who utilise the in-house talents of creative director Jordan McDonald and artist Allie Webb to create the distinctive speak-easy aesthetic.

ACT

Louis

Luchetti Krelle is one of the east coast’s most well-known hospitality designers; you’ll find the company’s work inside Rafi and Jane in Sydney, Kyomi on the Gold Coast and even a handful of projects in Japan. One of its latest is Louis, the classic European restaurant inside Canberra’s newly revamped Hotel Realm in Barton, plus the adjoining Terrace bar. Both spaces feel distinctly Parisian: Louis features rich jewel tones and marble and bronze fittings, while the Terrace resembles a leafy garden with chic café-style seating.

Qld

Agnes

Agnes

Few warehouse conversions are as brilliantly executed as that of the pared-back and industrial Agnes in Fortitude Valley. Every surface feels both tough and inviting. The two focal points – the woodfired hearth, grill and oven (which produces dishes such as the signature charcoal-kissed steak and seafood) and the enormous floor-to-ceiling wine cellar – dominate the room without overwhelming it. It’s a multilayered temple of industrialism and ingenuity that sets off premium fire-fuelled cooking.

The Sushi Room

The dark interiors of the sultry Sushi Room at The Calile Hotel in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley invite diners’ eyes to rest on one place: the spectacular, precisely lit hinoki cypress sushi bar at the centre of the room, where head chef Shimpei Raikuni and his team slice intricate tranches of toro, mackerel and kingfish. But the rest of the space is worth your attention. It’s a study in minimalism with a Brutalist 1960s edge – bold shapes, a dramatic domed ceiling and intriguing textures.

SA

Restaurant Botanica

Restaurant Botanic

Transforming a slightly twee botanic garden rotunda into what has become one of the country’s most extraordinary fine-dining restaurants is no small matter. Restaurant Botanic retains the essence of the building’s heritage features – including cottage-y love-heart cut-outs in the ceiling beams – but blends them with contemporary fabrics and fixtures that echo the colours of the Australian bush. The décor pairs seamlessly with chef Justin James’s 20-plus-course exploration of Australian flavours.

Little Ban Ban

Pretty and playful are the words to describe this super-cool Korean fried chicken joint in Rundle Mall. It was designed by Adelaide heavyweights Genesin Studio in collaboration with local branding experts Peculiar Familia. Pastel-blue tiles, mint-green chairs and glowing neon artwork make it seem like a futuristic doll’s house. Order a green tea soft serve to match the surroundings.

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