Top Paddock, McTavish's other highly-successful project.
Best Cafe Design: Top Paddock Cafe, Richmond. Photo: Eddie Jim

Mary-Jane Daffy

Next time you're dining out, lift your eyes from the plate and take them on a tour of the space. Increasingly Australia's cafes, restaurants and bars are not only satiating diners' palates but delivering a feast for the eyes.

Case-in-point is the courageous venture Farmhouse, a diminutive restaurant tucked in the heart of urban Sydney that channels the atmosphere and design of a well-worn farmhouse in the French countryside, with chefs who cook and deliver unfussy meals to a lone communal table of 20. Today it stands as a beacon of modern Australian design, having last week been awarded for best restaurant design at the second annual Eat-Drink-Design Awards. The puritanical approach of designer and Farmhouse co-owner Nicholas Gurney has paid off.

"There has to be an authenticity in the food offer, the experience and the execution of the detail," Eat-Drink-Design judge Domenic Alvaro, an architect, said. "With Farmhouse and many of the winners, it was what was left out rather than what was put in that substantiated that balance.”

Farmhouse features a lone communal table.
Farmhouse features a lone communal table. Photo: Supplied

This year more than 150 entries from across Australia and New Zealand were considered by the Eat-Drink-Design judges and awarded over seven categories (Hall of Fame, best bar design, best restaurant design, best cafe design, best temporary design, best retail design and best visual identity design).

The winners, and largely the projects shortlisted, tended to be smaller, inventive, owner-operator ventures rather than the bigger complexes highlighted in last year's awards.

"There was a real sense of individuality and that shows a robustness in the industry that restaurateurs are able to commit to small ventures," Eat-Drink-Design judge and design writer Rachel Hurst said from her Adelaide office. "The industry is getting very good at matching the intent of a bar, cafe or restaurant with the design that supports that. The better the design is, the more it becomes about the commonality of the place and the appreciation of food and wine."

The Prahran Hotel's facade.
The Prahran Hotel's facade. Photo: Peter Clark

With its stunning concrete culvert facade, the joint winner for best bar design, Prahran Hotel, received sweeping praise for a re-engagement with the local pub experience, providing powerful examples of architecture, interior design, landscape and theatre that build a multilayered experience.

The trend away from long, opulent dining experiences continued with a movement towards more casual dining, typified by an increase in much larger venues sporting a no-bookings policy and smaller share plates.

For Hurst, George Calombaris' recently opened Gazi in Melbourne reflected this movement with its expansive space, grand gesture of terracotta pots covering the roof and a character that sits comfortably between casualness, quality and sophisticated food offerings.

"It's a clever approach," Alvaro said of Gazi. "The budget and how clever designers were in creating an experience came into consideration when judging. It's not about an endless budget."

Quite the opposite. This year's entries showed a distinct paring back of design and a movement away from the often-unnecessary opulence and luxury that necessitate multimillion-dollar fit-outs.

"It's out of step with the reality of the hospitality industry where the return on investment has to be pragmatic and viable," Eat-Drink-Design judge, chef and restaurateur Christine Manfield said. She predicted a movement towards sensitive, sustainable design that utilised natural materials and had an honesty to it.

But how do our restaurants compare on the global stage? They're on a par, Manfield said. "We have everything from humble eating places with great character to minimalist design and extravagant design. They all have a place in determining our specific vernacular."

Winners of the Eat-Drink-Design Awards 2013

Winner Best Restaurant Design: Farmhouse
Designer: Nicholas Gurney
Location: Potts Point, NSW

Winner Best Bar Design (Joint): Hihou
Designer: Denton Corker Marshall
Location: Melbourne, Victoria

Winner Best Bar Design (Joint): Prahran Hotel
Designer: Techne Architects
Location: Windsor, Victoria

Winner Best Cafe Design: Top Paddock Cafe
Designers: Six Degrees Architects & Nathan Toleman Design & Construction
Location: Richmond, Victoria

Winner Best Temporary Design: Kitchen by Mike on Wheels
Designer: Koskela
Location: Rosebury, NSW

2013 Hall of Fame Inductee: Cafe Di Stasio
Designer: Allan Powell (1988)
Location: St Kilda, Victoria

Winner Best Retail Design: Spring Street Grocer
Designer: KGA Architecture
Location: Melbourne, Victoria

Winner Best Visual Identity Design: Bar Di Stasio
Designer: Collegamento – David Pigdon, Robert Simeoni & Callum Morton
Location: St Kilda, Victoria