Maurice Esposito has relaxed the vibe in his Saint Peter's restaurant. Photo: Simon Schluter
MELBOURNE'S restaurant scene is on a diet of humble pie as eateries are forced to adapt or perish.
While the city's top-end dining has escaped the implosion that has wiped out restaurants in Sydney, the closure of 40 per cent of restaurants at Docklands is hardly making anybody in the industry comfortable.
In Sydney, they tumbled like dominoes this year, with Berowra Waters, Becasse, Manly Pavilion and Pier shutting up shop, bringing the inevitable predictions about the imminent death of fine dining.
But while Melbourne's scene may not be piled with high-profile restaurant corpses, there is a lot of focus-shifting, rebranding, upsizing and downsizing that points to a survival game. Not surprisingly, most attention is on restaurants with queues spilling out the front door, the obvious beneficiaries of the small but consistent increases in discretionary spending on dining out recorded by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
Places such as Mamasita, Chin Chin, DOC and Baby are all serving well-priced food (Mexican, Thai, Italian) in rollickingly noisy, no-bookings spaces that are as much about atmosphere as they are about the food.
It was hard not to perceive these places as some sort of model when George Calombaris recently announced he was turning his modern Greek fine diner, The Press Club into a lively, noisy, no-bookings souvlaki bar.
The Press Club will reopen, but as a 30-seat upper-tier fine diner in the former Little Press bar space opening Monday to Friday, while the bigger space gets the cheaper option. As well as looking for a new challenge, Calombaris acknowledges that the market is changing. ''People are still coming through the doors but they're a lot more cautious. The cheaper places, the ones that are predictable and accessible, are the ones that are pumping,'' he says.
Maurice Esposito, owner/chef of Cucina di Esposito (formerly Toofey's) and Saint Peter's agrees that ''it doesn't look like people are prepared to spend big dollars''.
Esposito has made sweeping changes to both his restaurants in response to this perception. Saint Peter's has gone from being a linen-dressed, sustainable seafood restaurant to a bare-tabled, traditional-style trattoria, while his Carlton restaurant has also taken on an Italian emphasis complete with more meat on the menu and $110 degustation nights being replaced with Italian feasts priced about $60 a head.
''Our business has been down about 30 to 40 per cent on last year,'' he says. ''And that was partly to do with people thinking that we were an occasion restaurant. Occasion restaurants don't survive. The trattoria model is easier to run and more profitable - comfort food means more bums on seats.''
The ''comfort food/bums on seats'' equation has done wonders for the Sofitel's flagship restaurant, No 35, where highly complex food has given way to a menu filled with quality oysters, meat and seafood cooked with only a bare minimum of fuss.
''People were yearning for simplicity,'' says Sofitel general manager Clive Scott. ''It was all getting a bit complicated. We had dishes where there was up to 15 or 16 items finishing a dish. In the end I don't think the customer wanted it - it took too long to deliver and overcomplicated the issue.''
Adapt or perish
Cafe Di Stasio has opened Bar Di Stasio next door.
The Grossi family opened Ombra this week next to the Florentino Cellar Bar.
DOC has added DOC Delicatessen on Lygon Street.
Gerald's Bar has two offshoots in Rathdowne Village, a greengrocer, St Clements and a fine meat purveyor, Skinner and Hackett.
MoVida has Paco's Tacos on the terrace near MoVida Aqui.