Adieu, Claude's, after 37 years

Housebound Blues is wailing on the stereo as the staff at Claude's prepare for final service. The cutlery is polished and linen laid for the last time, the iron retired to a cupboard for good.

The French restaurant's end is counted down in coffee spoons, consomme and Angus beef (15 portions per fillet).

''We want to close with grace tonight,'' floor manager Abby Meinke says, as the door opens at 6pm on Saturday. ''This is a Sydney institution. Tonight's a precious little moment.''

"A precious little moment": The Woollahra restaurant's last night with dinner service.
"A precious little moment": The Woollahra restaurant's last night with dinner service. Photo: Marco Del Grande

In the kitchen, head chef Ben Sears hugs colleague Eun An. Stuck on the walls are photographs of famous chefs: Neil Perry and Heston Blumenthal, Jacques Reymond and Brad Pitt, who apparently makes a mean toasted cheese sandwich.

Diners stop at the kitchen to say farewell, waving faded menus from past meals at the Woollahra restaurant.

Saturday's menu reads like a greatest hits catalogue from the past 37 years. One diner is taken back by the oozy souffle a la Suissesse, a rich indulgence from a time before lactose intolerance and lycra went mainstream.

Spiced marron, gnocchi and cucumber.
Spiced marron, gnocchi and cucumber. Photo: Marco Del Grande

We were born in the same year, Claude's and I, and perhaps we have both seen better days. Diners used to wait six months for a table. Fridays and Saturdays stayed busy but on some weeknights lately there were as few as six covers.

It is hard competing for people's money and attention, says co-owner Phillip Haw.

''People go to yoga, they pick up the kids and do after school activities,'' he says. ''People try to fit more in their day than they used to … They only make time for special occasions.''


The special appeal of the two-hatted Claude's - with its drawn blinds and Limoges plates on the walls - was also its undoing. So special it became too special for Sydney diners wanting water views and bistros and burger joints.

It is 10.10pm as Sears fries salted beef and spoons out red wine sauce made from the restaurant's last bottles of Lake's Folly. Upstairs, in the dining room, people talk politics and football and fashions.

Diners linger, not wanting to leave. The party at table 31 discuss short skirts and hair extensions.

The final dish of the night - a ''broken'' chocolate indulgence cake in tribute to the restaurant's late, great Josephine Pignolet - goes to table 34, where Mary Ward is celebrating her 69th birthday.

Haw watches it leave the kitchen. ''I'm going to cry,'' he says.

The kitchen staff start scrubbing benchtops and emptying fridges. Clean plates are coated in cling wrap so they are not dirtied when workmen renovate the building, which will reopen this month as a pan-Asian restaurant.

On Monday, a hired shaman will formally cleanse the dining room of old spirits.

A waitress changes the music to boy band 'N Sync singing Bye Bye Bye. As the night nears its end, wine glasses are filled with a 2000 Chateau Margaux, a gift from a regular customer.

Sears, who hopes to open a bar in Redfern, rubs his tired red eyes.

''Every restaurant has a narrative, a story to tell, and, I think, somewhere along the way, Claude's lost its narrative,'' he says.

''People go to a restaurant like Claude's or Quay or Momofuku for more than a meal, they go to have something to tell their friends.

''But, at the end of the day, it's just a restaurant and in two weeks another one will open.

''If anything is surprising, it's that a fine dining restaurant lasted 37 years in Sydney.''

At 12.20am, Claude's final diners walk down the steep restaurant stairs to the front door. A waitress warns them to watch the last step - it's a doozy - before they spill onto Oxford Street. The front door is closed.