Food phobias have always been a mystery to me. As someone who not only adores eating but also gets to do it for a living, I’ve rarely been intimidated by a meal. That is, until I found myself strapped into a harness, perched in front of a small plywood table and dangled 17 metres up with nothing but the blustery Queensland evening air between me and the concrete slab below. As I attempted to enjoy a three-course dinner, with every neuron in my lizard brain howling for my survival instincts to kick in, I finally had the chance to experience the intersection of fear and food firsthand – in the most intense and thrilling way.
Welcome to Vertigo, Australia’s first “vertical restaurant”, which can be found clinging to the side of the Brisbane Powerhouse’s century-old façade. The concept is both simple and surreal: a fine-diner without a floor, where the guests sit at tables suspended in thin air. On its opening night, the staff are enthusiastic to the point of giddiness. “We had a test run yesterday and no-one died,” says one cheerfully as she oversees me signing the mandatory personal indemnity waiver (oh, the irony). I smile politely, even as I begin to feel the first eddies of adrenaline twisting in the pit of my stomach.
At Vertigo, the pre-meal happenings are pointedly different from the average restaurant. Instead of taking your coat, the maître d' encourages diners to rug up in comfortable clothes before they’re fitted with snug safety harnesses. Rather than being offered a cocktail or aperitif to whet the appetite, guests are breathalysed on arrival (total sobriety – a reading of 0.00% alcohol – is the requirement for entry). The usual culinary anticipation hits differently, too. There is, of course, the typical lip-smacking excitement about the tasty forkfuls that await but also a subtle, simmering dread – the same nail-biting, heart-in-your-throat sensations you might feel queuing for a roller-coaster or watching a scary movie.
It’s clear from the nervous giggles and anxious glances of my fellow diners that I’m not the only one feeling this way. Fortunately, the staff at Vertigo are experts in climbing safety and go to great lengths to reassure their guests that no-one is in peril. After ascending a stairwell to the roof of the Powerhouse, diners are tethered to a guide rail and then hitched to another safety rope when they reach their table. Even the cutlery is tethered, to protect any hapless passers-by should someone drop their fork. “This one can take the weight of a car so it can definitely handle you,” says my waiter about the thick yellow strap anchoring me to the building as I’m lowered into my seat. I take some comfort in this but it’s still a challenge to relax when the illusion of danger can be as persuasive as the real thing.
On paper, 17 metres might not sound like such a great height. In fact, while safely planted on terra firma, it’s easy to underestimate how daunting being so high feels. Now, confronted by the reality of it, I try to distract my rising anxiety by enjoying the sunset, with the Brisbane city skyline silhouetted against an amber blaze. As night creeps in over the Brisbane River and the last rays of the day blush pink in the twilight, I begin to appreciate what a gift this experience is. Here is a perspective on the city that very few people have witnessed in the almost 100 years since the Powerhouse was built – overlooking New Farm Park, jacaranda trees in full bloom, their blossom-laden boughs serenely waving in the breeze. It’s beautiful and almost enough to make me forget about the void beneath me. Almost. There’s enough panic still sizzling in my nerves that I can’t resist keeping one arm gripped to the brick ledge beside me. I attempt to make it look like a casual lean but my ruse doesn’t hold up for long.
“I’ve been working in heights safety for 25 years and that feeling never goes away,” says John Sharpe, the co-founder of Vertigo, who recognises my tell-tale signs of acrophobia. Having spent most of his career designing and building climbing walls, largely on cruise ships, realising his vision for a suspended dining experience is a long-time dream come true. Eventually, even diners in wheelchairs will be able to eat at Vertigo and the most adventurous guests will have the option to abseil up the side of the Powerhouse to reach their table, rather than taking the stairs. For now, adrenaline junkies can end their meal with one last rush: a “free fall” jump from the side of the building, before being gently lowered by rope to the ground.
The food, prepared onsite by the Powerhouse’s in-house restaurant, Alto, has been thoughtfully conceived to be broadly popular, travel well and hold up against the elements. A tried-and-true entrée of creamy burrata with tomatoes and a light balsamic dressing is a delicious crowd-pleaser that can be served not long into the sitting. This is followed by a silken brodetto of Moreton Bay bugs, king prawns, mussels and calamari, bathed in a delicate saffron bisque, served with crusty sourdough on the side, to soak up the briny liquid. A rich dessert of chocolate mousse cake served with a hazelnut cookie makes for a pleasant cadence to the meal. Each diner is also permitted one standard alcoholic drink once they’ve successfully made it to their table – a choice of white, red and rosé or beer.
Perhaps surprisingly for a restaurant, the edible elements are less the star of this show and more the plucky sidekick to the white-knuckle excitement that is Vertigo's main selling point. It’s the curious counterpoint of fine-dining with death-defying heights – the gritty challenge of facing your fears while savouring fine cuisine – that makes this restaurant unique. Australians are so spoiled for choice in the crowded dining scene that it’s become vanishingly rare to encounter a venue doing something genuinely new. It certainly won’t be for everyone but for thrill-seekers hungry for an appetising adventure unlike anything else that exists on our shores, Vertigo is a worthy addition to the bucket list.
Vertigo Restaurant at Brisbane Powerhouse is taking bookings now.
Images: Markus Ravik