Bold in scope and flexible in its hospitality, Melbourne’s soon-to-open Society is rewriting the restaurant rules. Whether you weigh it by the money spent, the talent involved, the attention it has attracted or simply by its epic square footage, Society is the biggest restaurant opening of the year – and it’s now open for bookings.
No one’s saying exactly how much it cost, mind you, but given that it’s the jewel in the crown of the 80 Collins Street development, which is worth a cool $1.5 billion, the sums involved aren’t small. Chris Lucas, the restaurateur behind runaway hits such as Chin Chin and Kisumé, says bringing it to life has also cost him no small amount of mental anguish. There’s a lot at stake here.
For one thing, Society marks the return to the kitchen of chef Martin Benn and his partner, Vicki Wild. After closing their Sydney restaurant, Sepia, in 2018, riding high on a wave of international acclaim, they moved to Victoria to team up with Lucas. “We’re not here to create a restaurant just for Melbourne,” says Lucas. “We’re here to create a restaurant for Australia.”
But if all this sounds like it’s leading towards one of those shrines to gastronomy where diners are held captive for hours by a tasting menu, each successive tiny dish taking longer to describe than it does to eat, you can relax. That’s not what this restaurant is about. Or, not what these restaurants – plural – are about.
Come winter, when Society opens, you’ll step out of the lift and be greeted by a bar: a good sign. Pause here for a moment before proceeding to the main event or settle in and make this the main event, grazing on crab toasts, caviar, potato tarts and oysters from the bar menu.
Turn right and slide into a booth of buttery leather at the Lillian Terrace, where dishes lean European – but not as you know it: a fine crêpe enfolding tiny whitebait, with garlic oil and smoked paprika, perhaps.
Turn left for Society’s principal attraction, a grand corner dining room beneath three vast Mark Douglass chandeliers. For Benn and Wild, whose focus for the past 20 years has been dégustation menus, switching to à la carte service has been refreshing. You want lobster? Try it with eggwhite rice and pickles or somen noodles and shellfish oil. Like duck? You might like it even more slow-roasted and glazed with a vinegar Benn makes with wild strawberries.
For a different experience entirely, they’re also opening a two-level 250-seater next-door. Yakimono will pay tribute to Tokyo-style bar dining – beer on tap, small bites, charcoal grills – with a Martin Benn twist. It could be something as familiar as a hand-roll or as singular as a morsel of smoked chicken liver parfait sandwich.
Society, says Lucas, is about delivering food and drink with fine-dining production values but doing away with the less fun parts. “And hey,” adds Benn, “if you really want me to put together a 10-course menu, I can do that for you. We’re here to say yes.”
Society opens on the 22nd of July, 2021 and can be found at 80 Collins Street, Melbourne.