Larissa Dubecki

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Flower Drum's four decades of success

Since 1975, Flower Drum has endured as a fine dining restaurant in Melbourne. And while they still have the public's support, father and son team Anthony and Jason Lui say they'll keep doing what they do.

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May you dine in interesting times. The ancient Chinese curse, with a small tweak, is a neat fit for the Melbourne restaurant industry's tumultuous year.

Last week saw the shock closure of Giuseppe, Arnaldo and Sons at Crown, and the six-week-old Mercy in the city; last month saw the closure of South Yarra's Louie. Embrasse, Gigibaba, Libertine, Mask of China, Wildflower and Walter's Wine Bar all closed their doors in recent months.

They won't be the last closures in an industry doing it tough, with several other "name" restaurants on shaky ground.

Restaurant of the year finalist ... Attica. Click for more photos

The Age Good Food Guide 2014 awards: the finalists

Restaurant of the year finalist ... Attica. Photo: Eddie Jim

Diners are spending less and expecting more, according to new figures from online booking agency Dimmi, which show the average spend per person dropped from $61 to $54 in the last year.

Hence the proliferation of second-tier restaurants, typified by George Calombaris devolving Press Club into the more affordable, souvlaki-centric Gazi, and the well-regarded Aylesbury being transformed from contemporary restaurant to Spanish workers' caf.

But let's not announce the death of fine dining just yet. As restaurateurs and readers anticipate the launch of the 34th The Age Good Food Guide on Monday week, the shortlist for restaurant of the year is a roll call of tried and tested Melbourne favourites: Attica, Cafe di Stasio, Spice Temple, Flower Drum and Cumulus Inc.

For Market Lane stalwart Flower Drum, inclusion means remaining at the top of its game 38 years after opening.

Owner Anthony Lui has plenty of reasons to be cheerful. Not only is Flower Drum is on the shortlist for restaurant of the year, he's a contender for chef of the year.

All in a brave new eating era when fine dining is, he cheerfully concedes, "very hard".

Flower Drum has always been something of a family affair. Lui joined original owner Gilbert Lau in 1980 – he bought the business from his mentor in 2000 – and most of the chefs and waiters are in for the long haul, says his son, restaurant manager Jason Lui, who's also the polished maitre d' and past winner of the guide's service excellence award.

"The biggest thing is consistency," he says. "My biggest asset is staff. The average guy in the kitchen has been there 20 years."

Even venerable institutions need to keep up with the times, however. The younger Lui was the driving force re-energising Flower Drum during a critical slump several years ago.

"I dine out a lot myself and you see from a diner's perspective what keeps things interesting," he said.

Innovations, including a new focus on smaller, shareable dishes, dragged it into the modern age without betraying its past: "There's so much tradition, so much history, you don't want to mess with."

And the future for one of the world's great Cantonese restaurants? Will the Luis be opening their own second-string restaurant any time soon? "Right now, no, but never say never," says Anthony Lui with a grin.

Finalists for the 2014 Age Good Food Guide awards

Restaurant of the year: Attica, Cafe di Stasio, Spice Temple, Flower Drum, Cumulus Inc.

Regional Restaurant of the Year: Terminus at Flinders Hotel (Flinders), Ten Minutes by Tractor (Main Ridge), Paringa Estate (Red Hill South), Lake House (Daylesford), Healesville Hotel (Healesville), Simone's (Bright).

Chef of the Year: Ben Shewry (Attica), Anthony Lui (Flower Drum), Steven Rofe (Cafe di Stasio), George Calombaris (Made Establishment).

Donlevy Fitzpatrick Award (casual hospitality, a bar with good food): Bar di Stasio, Cumulus Up, Neighbourhood Wine, Ombra.

 

The Age Good Food Guide 2014 will be available for $10 with The Saturday Age on August 31, from participating newsagents, Coles, Woolworths and 7Eleven stores, while stocks last. It will also be available in bookshops and online at theageshop.com.au for $24.99 from Tuesday, August 27.