One of Australia's most coveted dining venues, at the Sydney Opera House, will change hands and become Bennelong by Stokehouse mid-next year. And the winning tenderers' pledge to make it “classic and exuberant, respectful and contemporary” … and a lot more affordable.
Melbourne restaurateurs Frank van Haandel and wife Sharon will extend the Stokehouse brand from St Kilda and Stokehouse Q in Brisbane with a 10-year lease at the Opera House. It will be open seven days a week for lunch and dinner, and for breakfast on the weekends. It's a big shift from the existing fine-dining lessee – Guillaume at Bennelong – which closes on Sundays and Mondays, does not serve breakfast, offers lunch only twice a week, and is often booked for private functions.
There had been controversy about removing Guillaume Brahimi's three-hatted restaurant from the premium site at the end of its decade-long lease, but the Opera House Trust wanted it to become more accessible, to more people and more often. When Stokehouse opens next May after multimillion-dollar renovations, diners can expect to pay $85 for a three-course meal excluding drinks, compared with $150 for four courses at Guillaume, which also offers a degustation for $195.
While revealing Stokehouse as the winning tenderer on Friday morning, trust chairman "Aussie" John Symond acknowledged there had been some dissent at board level about the philosophical shift, but he said it was "easily a majority" decision and there would be no lingering anger.
Fairfax Media understands the Opera House has received about a third of the going market rate for rent for the site until now, but will achieve a market rate under the new deal.
Stokehouse's creative director and executive chef, Anthony Musarra, will return to Sydney and Stokehouse Q's 30-year-old "rising star" chief, Richard Ousby, will be the head chef at Bennelong.
Symond and Opera House chief executive Louise Herron stress that while the restaurant will be accessible, it will not be "cheap" nor an upmarket cafe. It will exploit the venue's split levels. The lower level will seat up to 140 people in what Frank van Haandel described as a "more two-hatted" and "understated fine dining" experience – but with a more casual approach that will serve the "masses, whether that be the theatre-goer, the corporates, families" or some of the 8.2 million tourists who see the Opera House every year – 7 million of them without seeing a show.
Video: Au revoir Guillame, g'day Bennelong by Stokehouse
The upper level, fitting about 130 people, will operate as a bar – open till about midnight, though with last drinks at 11pm under the liquor licence – and for more casual dining.
“I am delighted to be coming home to take on the most exciting challenge of my life: a restaurant worthy of Australia's greatest building,” said Musarra.
Ousby joined Stokehouse Q in 2012, became head chef earlier this year and immediately earned it a second chef's hat. He won the 2012 Acqua Panna & S Pellegrino International Young Chef of the Year award and the 2011 Electrolux Australian Young Chef of the Year. He was sous-chef to Peter Gilmore at Sydney's Quay Restaurant and worked under Michel Roux at the famous Waterside Inn in Britain.
Musarra has earned multiple awards and hats in Sydney, including at the Pavilion on the Park, Lucciola and Harbour Kitchen and Bar, and Park Hyatt Sydney. After five years at the helm of Stokehouse St Kilda, he was appointed general manager of the Van Haandel Group.
The other tenderers for Bennelong would not be revealed because that was "commercial in confidence", Herron said. However, it is believed Bill Granger was among them.
Guillaume, whose last night at the venue will be New Year's Eve, elected not to tender, given his determination to stick with top-end dining.
Mr Symond said he told Guillaume on Friday morning. He admitted leaving would be an "emotional" time for Guillaume, even though he had already chosen to move on.
On the push to a more accessible restaurant and the dissent among board members, he said: "Very emotive. Very emotive. There has been comment thrown around on various occasions – and I'm not talking the Trust here – that the most iconic building needs the most iconic restaurant. That sounds good but in reality that doesn't give people what they want."
Correction: The original version of this story listed the price of three courses at Guillaume at Bennelong as $205. The price is $150 for four courses. This has been amended in the text.