How to skip the queue and get VIP treatment at some of Australia’s best restaurants.
We have the French Revolution to thank for the chef’s table. Well, sort of. Restaurants first became widespread in Paris when cooks previously engaged in the houses of noblemen had to find a new way to make a living. Because of the antisocial hours (how little has changed there), it was common to put a table in the kitchen to entertain family and friends or, presumably, go through le divorce.
Fast-forward 200-odd years to our food-obsessed age and the chef’s table – whether it’s in the kitchen or just outside – is considered the best seat in the house. And why not? It’s a chance to see the inner workings of a commercial kitchen; a fascinating window into the clang and bustle, the surgical tweezer work and the occasional second-degree burn. Think of it as a money-can’t-buy experience that money can buy.
The chef’s table comes at a cost – normally, it’s a set menu with matched wines and we all know what that means for the wallet – but you get to hobnob with the chefs, who typically deliver food to the table as if it’s a Royal Command Performance. And it’s a great way to show off to important clients or simply your nearest and dearest – it’s your “I’m with the band” moment. Remember that party with the clown your parents threw for your fifth birthday? This is the grown-up version and it’s much more fun.
The chef’s table is a place to be pampered and have all your nerdy questions about cooking techniques and uses of salsify answered. On a practical note, it can also help you jump the queue at restaurants booked up until June 2023.
So why not try one of these chefs’ tables? They are, after all, some of the best in Australia.
The Press Club
George Calombaris’s meringue-smashing flagship Greek fine-diner gets downright experimental every Saturday night with a kitchen table dedicated to pushing the boundaries and testing new dishes on an open-minded audience. Get inside the fevered mind of the guy who invented the chips ’n’ dips Hills Hoist at a dedicated kitchen (it’s a few doors down from The Press Club dining room), where up to 12 guests perch at an island bench to watch the evening’s chef take them through a whirl of dishes both new and in development. It’s a fabulously interactive way to get underneath the gloss of a restaurant that resembles Aristotle Onassis’s yacht, plus you get a behind-the-scenes tour of The Press Club kitchens. Five courses $160
72 Flinders Street, Melbourne; (03) 9677 9677
Dinner by Heston Blumenthal
With a maximum of just six diners seated inside the Dinner kitchen, the chef’s table at Heston Blumenthal’s acclaimed Melbourne restaurant is boutique to the power of 10. Guests can watch the chefs fuss and fret over their meal from the comfort of a caramel-coloured leather banquette underneath artist Dave McKean’s opulent food mural and feel delightfully superior to the plebs in the dining room. “You’re totally in the thick of it,” says Blumenthal’s spokeswoman, Monica Brown. “You get the liquid nitrogen trolley, you get the history of the dishes from the chefs and when they’re testing new dishes, you can be the guinea pigs.” Head chef Evan Moore is in charge of the 10-course tasting menu (eight courses at lunch), which gives you an opportunity to sample a broad swathe of the à la carte menu, finishing with a miniature version of the famous tipsy cake. Eight-course lunch $285, 10-course dinner $375.
Crown complex, 8 Whiteman Street, Southbank; (03) 9292 5779
Are you ready to feel like a VVIP? Access to The Kitchen at Bennelong is through a secret door that opens to reveal an underworld of focused chefs wielding sharp knives and hot pots. As one of four lucky intruders (with deep pockets), you’re seated overlooking the harbour – but, thanks to a mirror reflecting the antics of the kitchen behind, you’ll feel you’re in the midst of it. The price includes eight spectacular courses with matching wines. And if executive chef Peter Gilmore is in the house (he’s there 50 per cent of the time), he’ll personally present the dishes and talk about their creation. After feasting on everything from redclaw yabby with lemon jam, cultured cream and a buckwheat pikelet (with a glass of 2006 Pol Roger, no less) to a giant prawn raviolo with ocean trout roe in an umami broth, you’ll be whisked into the pastry section for a quick look-see before returning, sadly, to the real world. Minimum spend $2200 seating up to four guests.
Sydney Opera House, Bennelong Point, Sydney; (02) 9240 8000
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There are Sydney Harbour waterfront restaurants – plenty of them, really – and then there’s Flying Fish, which captures the very essence of the ocean. The chef’s table seats up to eight people a few feet from the kitchen (you can also book it for an intimate dinner for two). Chef Stephen Seckold and his team embrace the interactive nature of the experience, delivering the five- or six-course dégustation with detailed explanations about the produce and cooking methods – handy for the next time you cook charred storm clams with XO and sweet corn or hand-picked spanner crab with white soy cream, corella pear and smoked almond. Six courses $150.
Jones Bay Wharf, 19-21 Pirrama Road, Pyrmont; (02) 9518 6677
File the chef’s table at this hip modern-Greek restaurant under “keeping it real”. The popular venue houses its 12-seat marble table in an alcove off the kitchen that doubles as a pantry so the pace can be frenetic and the opportunity to throw questions at the chefs – while they prepare saganaki, grilled octopus and slow-cooked lamb shoulder – is unparalleled. Opt for one of two special banquet menus by chef Jonathan Barthelmess or go à la carte. Celebrities might be pleased to know there’s a discreet side entrance. Entire table for whole night $1200 minimum spend (or individual à la carte bookings).
44 Macleay Street, Potts Point; (02) 8354 0888￼
It’s red like a Ferrari and roars like one, too. Fortitude Valley’s Bucci is no wallflower but a big-hearted trattoria where noise levels can be challenging and amped-up Italian classics rule the menu, whether it’s Wagyu carpaccio with truffled pecorino and garlic crisps or spaghetti with boar and porcini ragù. Just to the side of the kitchen pass, the 20-seat chef’s table is close to the action – and owner and executive chef Shaun Malone is happy for guests to venture up for chats and demonstrations. In addition, given enough notice, he’ll arrange themed tasting menus. ￼ À la carte or special menu by request.
15 James Street, Fortitude Valley; (07) 3252 7848
Known as one of the best winery restaurants in the land, it enjoyed a Hecker Guthrie refit last year and, no, you don’t have to be part of a big group to book the chef’s table (which seats up to 16), as long as you’re willing to share the space with strangers. So much for the vital statistics at Vasse Felix, the darling of the Margaret River region. As befits a surf-centric area, the chef’s table is an informal affair: a high table with stools in front of the kitchen. The inhabitants of this hallowed real estate, like everyone in the dining room, can choose from the Asian-influenced à la carte menu of longstanding chef Aaron Carr or the five-course tasting menu. “You have the added bonus of being able to watch the chefs in their domain,” says hospitality manager Caleb Dreaver. “We certainly see a lot of long lunches.” Five-course tasting menu $95 or à la carte.
Corner of Caves Road and Tom Cullity Drive, Margaret River; (08) 9756 5050
It’s located on South Australia’s Limestone Coast and the closest big city is Mount Gambier, half an hour’s drive away, but Mayura Station gives good reason to go off the beaten track. The acclaimed steak restaurant, known as The Tasting Room at Mayura Station, affords the chance to drill down into the whys and wherefores of Wagyu – Mayura Station being a producer of prime beef since 1845, SA’s first pastoral lease and, in its modern iteration, a boutique producer of award-winning full-blood Wagyu. Ten people can warm their cockles at the grill and watch chef Mark Wright prepare a four-course paddock-to-plate experience par excellence. As well as whipping up slow-cooked short ribs in five-spice consommé with pickled cucumber, he’ll explain the history of Wagyu, the different cuts and the best ways to prepare them. As a bonus, the museum wines of the local Coonawarra region are matched to each course. Three courses $95, four courses $110.
Canunda Frontage Road, Canunda; (08) 8733 4333
Tasmanians don’t really go in for fine dining, any local will proudly tell you, so let’s bend the rules and proclaim that the four seats at the bar overlooking the kitchen of this newcomer could be among the nation’s most exclusive chefs’ tables. In fact, this tiny restaurant, seating a maximum of 20 in a converted butcher’s shop, could be seen as a chef’s table in its entirety, especially as everyone gets a good view of Matt Breen working the pans. Templo is making big waves despite its bijou size, and its nine-course chef’s menu is great value. “If you’re looking for a label, you can call it Italian-Sicilian,” says co-owner Chris Chapple, who’s in charge of the floor, “but we’re just trying to cook inspiring, rustic, transparent, tasty dishes.” ￼Nine courses $65.
98 Patrick Street, Hobart; (03) 6234 7659
Farmhouse Restaurant at Pialligo Estate
It’s an improbable vision of bucolic bliss close to Canberra: a luxurious stone and timber building hugged by Paul Bangay gardens. Less of a restaurant than a sign of the ACT’s evolving times, Farmhouse Restaurant has won the hearts of the pollie and public-service set (and warmed their toes with the underfloor heating and open fire). Escape the dining room hoi polloi at the antique Carrara-marble-topped chef’s table, which seats eight guests directly in front of the kitchen, and hit the six-course tasting menu of confident mod Oz fare (try the quince, pine nut, sage, orange and smoked milk) that’s a thousand times more exciting than Hansard. ￼Six courses $120.
18 Kallaroo Road, Pialligo; (02) 6247 6060