Spot-on service and an outstanding menu can be flushed from memory when you're confronted by a drab bathroom, scummy hand soap and no toilet roll. Though it may not be the topic of polite dinner conversation, a bad bathroom is a universal deal-breaker, and restaurateurs are spending big bucks so good taste doesn't end at the toilet door.
Melbourne's Vue de Monde and the Lui Bar, the crown jewels of Shannon Bennett's culinary empire, share possibly the most talked-about bathrooms in the city - combined, they are worth a cool million.
Designed by architecture and interior firm Elenberg Fraser, the moodily lit spaces are shielded by curved, metallic walls designed to resemble the corrugated iron of an outback dunny. Both the men's and women's feature sleek stone basins with running water cascading from above.
It's the gents', however, that conceals Melbourne's most eye-opening dining experience. The pissoir, where three blokes stand face-to-face at a shared urinal, is more than a little confronting for some delicate diners.
"A restaurant should be a place to have fun and enjoy yourself," says Vue de Monde's head chef Cory Campbell. "If the men's bathroom is something you can laugh about, almost as an icebreaker, perhaps on a first date, that's great."
For Curtin House proprietor and Mesa Verde co-owner Tim Peach, the women's toilets were priority No.1 in his sixth-floor Mesoamerican tequila bar and restaurant. Designed by Grant Amon Architects and with impressive views of the city, they're marble clad at $300 a square metre. The cubicles have even been soundproofed. Silence, in these circumstances, is certainly golden.
It was executive chef Kathy Reed's call to go with NSW-based Murchison-Hume hand soap, which she uses at home. "Aesop's really beautiful, but everyone tends to use it and I wanted a minor point of difference. People steal it sometimes, but we don't want to drill into the marble, so we suck it up."
Michael J. McCann, principal of Sydney's Dreamtime Australia Design, impresses upon clients that all areas, whether it's a private room or the bathroom, should be exciting. "If you make a real statement in the toilets, it proves you really care about the look of the venue," he says.
In a case of throwing money down the toilet, McCann has overseen projects where the bathrooms alone cost upwards of $100,000. Flying Fish, executive chef Stephen Seckold's one-hatted Pyrmont seafood restaurant, is a prime example. To maximise the heritage-listed shell of the old wharf building, the bathroom walls are sheer glass up against old timber with cubicles in clear glass, too - though they frost over once you close the door. Sourced from Japan, the switchable glass set the owners back $3000 a square metre.
"They probably get about 25 per cent of people coming back to the dining room saying, 'C'mon, you must have a real toilet somewhere?'" McCann says.
This playfulness is a trademark of his work; he also designed the head-turning unisex bathrooms at the Argyle at The Rocks. Cubicles with (permanently) frosted doors line both sides of the room, with a vast glass, illuminated trough down the centre fed by water from pendant pipes.
But it's the alien-like 1.8 metre curved glass pods towards the rear of the room that really get people talking. They conceal cheeky pissoirs.
Rachel Luchetti, director at Sydney-based design firm Luchetti Krelle, is no stranger to controversy when it comes to bathroom fitouts. When tasked with the interior of Ananas Bar & Brasserie in The Rocks, she wanted to capture something of the joie de vivre of gay Paris.
Taking her research seriously, she and another designer spent two weeks scouring the cobbled laneways of the French capital checking out cool bars and bistros. It was while walking near the Moulin Rouge that she spotted the bright-red Rolling Stone-esque lip urinals in a showroom. "We thought it was risque, very humorous and captured an energy we observed in Paris," she says.
Not everyone saw it that way. When a furore broke out just before Ananas' opening night, with claims of misogyny levelled, the owners thought twice and ripped them out. After a Sydney Morning Herald poll revealed that three-quarters of respondents thought it was a storm in a pee cup, they were reinstated, and now hang beside black cockatoo wallpaper.
"It's naughty, but it's certainly not meant to be offensive," Luchetti says. "Here we were, a couple of women - and feminists, I might add - so it was a real shock to have people interpret it that way. We didn't see it as misogynistic, we saw it as rock'n'roll."
Best restaurant bathrooms in Sydney
Most talked-about blokes' Those naughty ruby red lips in the boys' at Ananas Brasserie may have caused an almighty stoush, but they're here to stay, and we think we like that. The pink flamingo wallpaper and the vanity held aloft by golden mannequin legs are pretty cool in the ladies' too.
Most luxurious ladies' The dark and moody loos at Saké´ know how to treat a lady - slate-clad walls with ornate golden mirrors and lighting at such a low level you'll look fab regardless.
Classiest We love the jade-coloured stained-glass and gorgeous wood affair in the already super-spiffy Mr Wong. A place of true beauty to do less-beautiful things.
Scariest Fear not the clear glass cubicles at Flying Fish. Only the brave will discover that magic frost will save your modesty once you close the door behind you.
Cheekiest We love the pod people urinals lurking at the back of the Argyle's funky unisex affair. Ladies, no sneaking a peek.
Spaciest The metal-tile-clad walls and egg- pod vanities at Steel Bar and Grill make us feel like we're in a whacky '60s sci-fi film, and there's nothing wrong with that.
Most confronting Hello boys, those full-length mirrored urinals up at 360 have left many a bloke not knowing where to look as they walk into the uncomfortably awkward reflection of another guy mid-flow.
Messiest The graffitied loos at El Loco Surry Hills, complete with paint dripping down the walls.
Most confusing The loos at O Bar and Dining revolving restaurant in the city. Bythe time you've been and gone, the whole restaurant's moved, and finding your way back to your table can be tricky.
Most futuristic The Pirelli rubber-padded loos complete with miniature TVs at China Lane. Who wants to go back to the table?
Girliest The hot pink ladies' powder room at La Scala on Jersey in Woollahra.
Stephen A. Russell and Terry Durack
Best restaurant bathrooms in Melbourne
Most talked-about blokes' The men's at Vue de Monde and the Lui Bar wins this one hands down for their conversation-sparking, eyebrow-raising three-way pissoir.
Loos with a view It's a tough call. The floor-to-ceiling sheer glass walls in the bathrooms of the Sofitel's No. 35, way up on the 35th floor, are the most spectacular in town, looking out to the Royal Botanic Gardens and the MCG. And the women's marble-clad affair at Mesa Verde, with rooftop city views that scream ''New York loft'', are also big winners.
Swankiest all round Cutler & Co delivers some of the best food in the city, and they help you say goodbye in fine surrounds too, with sliding glass doors revealing sexy unisex bathrooms with black-and-white wallpaper and a splash of bright red and lime green tiles.
Best story Ladro co-owner Ingrid Langtry was smitten by the old Italian tradition of having one big trough to do everything in, from washing dishes, clothes or babies to soaking lettuce, with a bucket to collect run-off. She sourced an original Italian trough for the unisex loos at the original Ladro Gertrude and had buckets custom-made for Ladro Greville.
Cheekiest Andy Restein, co-owner of Windsor's Japanese fusion joint Mr Miyagi, wanted a playful, street vibe when engaging interior design firm Eades & Bergman, with subtle hints including Japanese newsprint in the bathrooms and the hand-painted art of illustrator Tracy Hogan, influenced by Japanese erotica.
Quirkiest Named after Athens' thriving LGBTI quarter, Gazi is an innuendo landmine and this playfulness is in everything from the menu and pot ceiling to the pink neon in the bathrooms.
Most ostentatious Like the cast of Mad Men goes to Vegas, the loos at Crown's the Waiting Room look a million bucks in a simultaneously ritzy and chintzy way.
Best inspiration The map-strewn walls of Richmond's rustic Mexican joint Chingon make us dream of eating street food far, far away.
Best read They're not luxurious, but the dunny walls in Windsor's YellowBird Cafe are plastered with a tonne of old music mags, including Melody Maker, so you can revel in good old tales of rock'n'roll glory.