Chefs around the country are downsizing in the name of control and creativity, resulting in intimate restaurants that take dining to the next level. This is how these new restaurants are transforming Australia's culinary scene.
In the two years since she closed her famed Billy Kwong restaurant, Kylie Kwong has had time to ponder the scope and shape of modern restaurants. Billy Kwong, in Sydney’s Potts Point, seated 140 and could serve more than 200 each session on a busy day. But Kwong’s newly opened South Eveleigh restaurant is a different story. Tucked in a slice of a restored locomotive factory, Lucky Kwong seats 25, opens only at lunch and offers no bookings.
“It’s simple,” says Kwong. “For me, the smaller my eatery is, the more control I feel I have. Being in control is crucial in this pandemic era because now, every day, with COVID-19 on our doorstep, new challenges are thrown at us.”
Kwong is one of a growing band of restaurateurs choosing to eschew the traditional 100-plus-seats restaurant model for smaller, more intimate venues. While Japanese food culture has always accommodated omakases – minuscule restaurants, usually seating less than 12, where the chef offers a daily selection of morsels – the trend is now catching on across cuisines and across Australia.
These eateries are finding cracks – basement spaces, home kitchens, rooms within restaurants – in which to spring up and the trend suits the times. Smaller venues pose less financial risk to the restaurateur – many have a fixed-price set menu, which
eases stress on the kitchen – and offer exclusive encounters for diners hungry for original experiences.
Josh Niland, whose seafood-focused Saint Peter in Sydney’s Paddington has won global praise, believes smaller operations offer not only a collegiate encounter for diners but produce happier chefs and staff. Last year, Niland reduced the capacity of his restaurant from 34 to 18, creating a space where people can interact with him and his team of four as they work. “When you have a restaurant like this, there’s so much transparency around the product,” he says. “There’s no barrier to the kitchen – you could get flecked with a hot ember if you’re not careful.”
He says the communal atmosphere furnishes a “we’re all in it together” feel that people crave. “When we pull a Wellington out of the oven and cut it, we’re seeing how it’s turning out for the first time, the same as the diners. It’s about dining as theatre. The more people start seeing chefs as the cast and food as the props – and that you pay for your ticket to the show and if you’re not there then the show will go on without you – the better.”
In Hobart, Templo was one of the first to downscale. Chris Chapple and head chef Matt Breen opened the 20-seat Italian restaurant in an erstwhile butcher’s shop six years ago. With its tiny dining room, rustic approach and emphasis on the finest Apple Isle produce, Templo has proved a masterstroke. These days, the waitlist for a table at the Hobart restaurant extends to months, with the venue a destination for mainlanders seeking a personal, unique experience when visiting Hobart. “Restaurants like this have a great atmosphere,” says Chapple. “It’s like a dinner party going on around you.”
Before opening Templo, Chapple worked in big restaurants in Melbourne and “had begun to feel the hospitality industry was heading in a direction I wasn’t comfortable with”. It was all about publicity and social media, he says. “I wanted to do something authentic. I felt very inspired by the places I had visited in Italy and Spain, where you would go somewhere in the regions with just four to five people in there – that’s what eating is about.”
Kwong says the main benefit for both diner and chef in microrestaurants is the relationship opportunity it extends. “I stand behind my kitchen counter looking out onto the dining room area and the front door; I can see the entire room and all my customers at once at any given moment,” she says. “People love the personal feeling that Lucky Kwong is able to offer. It’s like stepping into our home for a meal. During these very complex times, in which our preconceived idea of ‘connection’ is really being challenged, this type of set-up is very welcome.”
7 restaurants breaking the mould...
There are little restaurants and then there’s six-seat Chae. South Korean-born chef Jung Eun Chae operates this operation from a one-bedroom Brunswick apartment lined with bottles of kimchi and other various preserves, where vegetables hang from the ceiling to air-dry. The dining itself – lunch is $69, dinner $79 – happens on a bench in Chae’s kitchen but don’t be misled into thinking this is a homey affair. Chae has culinary pedigree (she’s ex-Cutler & Co) and the hype around her creative Korean fare has resulted in a waitlist of more than 6000.
Lucky Kwong, Sydney
Kylie Kwong’s original Billy Kwong on Surry Hills’s Crown Street was a pocket dynamo before she moved into larger premises in Potts Point in 2014. At just 82 square metres, Lucky Kwong in South Eveleigh, near Redfern, is a “beautiful tiny jewel box of a place”, says Kwong, “which focuses on offering best-quality sustainable produce and nourishing, home-style food”. Prices are affordable – there’s nothing over $20 – and the list includes favourites such as steamed prawn dumplings with Sichuan chilli dressing.
If people end up “shoulder to shoulder” at Templo, nobody is complaining. The dining room is in an old butcher’s shop and the kitchen is housed in what was once the cold room, leading to a tight but convivial atmosphere for the lucky 20 who eat at each sitting (lunch is $50, dinner $85). Owners Chris Chapple and Matt Breen are obsessive about local produce and take a simple Italian-style approach to cooking, extracting maximum flavour from meat, seafood and vegetables without messing with their essence.
Sarah Scott’s Fortitude Valley 10-seater offers a menu of “many courses and small bites”. The space is more or less an open kitchen with a counter at which diners sit and engage with Scott (ex-Sixpenny in Sydney and Brisbane’s Urbane) as she and her one staff member prepare the dishes, serve them and then wash up. The $150 menu might include venison and Wagyu tartare with golden sesame and celeriac or octopus with prawn XO. Expect plenty of well, joy, on the plate.
Saint Peter, Sydney
At 32, Josh Niland already has a swag of awards tucked into his chef’s apron – including the James Beard Cookbook of the Year prize and a nod on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants’ 50 Next list – but that doesn’t mean Saint Peter is big and flashy. Rather, this sustainable-seafood venue serves just 18 with a $155 tasting menu (lunch is à la carte). Niland’s next venture, Charcoal Fish, set to open in spring in Rose Bay, will also be diminutive, with 10 seats inside and 16 outside.
Greasy Zoes, Melbourne
With room for eight, this Hurstbridge bolthole in outer Melbourne has no written menu, no regular wine list and few formalities. Rather, patrons at Zoe Birch and Lachlan Gardner’s fine diner feast on a $140 multi-course meal based on produce grown by “hyperlocal” organic farmers. Birch does prep with her baby on her hip while Gardner works the floor; both do the washing up. The food is exquisite and Greasy Zoes is booked at least two months in advance.
Yoshii’s Omakase, Sydney
Renowned sushi chef Ryuichi Yoshii has opened a 10-seat bijou diner inside Crown Sydney’s Nobu. Yoshii’s $350 dégustation pays homage to the omakase tradition, with a sequence of delectable morsels served by the chef himself.