Looking back on 30 years of The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide

The first edition of <i>The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide</i>, launched in 1984.
The first edition of The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide, launched in 1984. Photo: Dallas Kilponen

Thirty years ago Sydney was in the midst of a full-blown fruit invasion. Tamarillo was being served with venison, fish was forced into an arranged menage a trois with mango sauce and watermelon, and raspberry vinegar was being liberally splashed everywhere.

Food historians can pick over the first edition of The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide like the heavily laden buffet it is and ponder how pawpaw, pistachio and avocado could have existed in the one spoonful. They can marvel at the irony of 1984 being devoid of Orwellian iPhone-wielding diners while a strict jacket policy was policed at some establishments. One Sydney venue banned anyone wearing New Romantic clothing. Presumably Wham ''Choose Life'' baggy T-shirts were fine.

This year marks the 30th edition of The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide. It's easy to poke fun at the quirks of life in Sydney back then: a period when phone numbers were shorter, a website was found in a corner of the restaurant cellar populated by spiders, and ''dinner and a show'' was offered with the cool casualness today's eateries deliver gluten-free dishes. Yet a study of those early editions of the Guide reveal much of what was to follow, an amuse bouche, perhaps, to the dining powerhouse that modern Sydney was to become.


The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide 2015 awards are on tonight. Follow #goodfoodguide on Twitter from 7.30 pm for the live results. Or check goodfood.com.au from about 9pm for full coverage.


But where are the celebrity chefs?

Chefs hardly rated a mention in the first guides. The restaurateur was king, with the ''host'' listed but not the chef. Indeed, the meal could have been coming out of a central storage depot at Mascot given the paucity of credit. Few of the 20-plus restaurants that were awarded chefs' hats in the first edition survive. Yet lurking in the background were figures that shape Sydney to this day. Neil Perry was a little-known chef at Barrenjoey House. His fame grew at the same rate as his ponytail, Perry's rising star leaving a Cluedo-like trail through the Guide's editions. Monikers such as the Blue Water Grill and Bistro Mars were mere flashes in the pan when compared to Rockpool, which has starred in many previous editions of the Guide.

Perry embodies the rise of chef celebrity as observed and cajoled by the Guide. Anonymous in the first edition, by the year 2000, the temporary stripping of a toque at Rockpool made front-page news.

The snakes and ladders of awards night is now tradition, but the first time the Guide really got the knives out was in 1988. Three of the four three-toque restaurants from the previous year were demoted. It wasn't so much a knife to the throat as a chopstick to the eyeball, because Suntory and Imperial Peking Harbourside were two of the restaurants to feel the executioner's chop. Controversy became part of the awards nights over the years. When city fine diner Banc lost a hat, legend has it chef Liam Tomlin hurled his mobile phone into Sydney Harbour. When Aria was similarly demoted in the noughties, a documentary film crew followed chef Matt Moran for a year chronicling his quest to win it back.

Laying the fine dining foundations

There was some polished food to be found in that first edition. OK, so the 1984 Guide illustrated a fondness for warm camembert with cranberry sauce and coconut and pineapple soup, but Sydney was already producing the sorts of dishes on which our food revolution was built, albeit in smaller quantities.

Chef Peter Doyle's Reflections restaurant at Palm Beach was lauded with three hats in 1984 for its ''modified'' nouvelle cuisine. The only other three-hat restaurant that year was Berowra Waters Inn, the landmark restaurant set up by Gay and Tony Bilson.

Doyle provides a perfect case study of the 30-year evolution of Sydney restaurants. When he started out at Reflections, Sydney was dominated by shopfront restaurants with low-budget fitouts. At est., Doyle operates from a historic CBD building with pressed-metal ceilings, a multimillion-dollar fitout and a menu with truly global influences. Interior decorating budgets have skyrocketed across the board and so has the realisation Sydney is a sunny, outdoorsy city with a stunning harbour that our restaurants have spent the past 30 years creeping towards.

From nouvelle cuisine to dude food

There was no Mod Oz in that first issue, but there was an award for "Best Australian/Anglo Saxon". As the years rolled by, Sydney segued from pint-sized nouvelle cuisine to stacked food, dabbled with nuevo latino and chomped on fusion. While the first Guide was heavy with restaurants that started with Le and La as a French influence ruled, today it is more LA style, with US-inspired dude food elbowing French aside, and hipster casual taking over from linen-laced finery.

The editors of the 1989 Guide begged for more Italian restaurants and bistros "offering simple food, snappy service [and] short menus". Be careful what you ask for, because Sydney restaurateurs have seemingly spent the past 25 years answering the call.

They could pick a food trend, but reading the editors' comments will also make any modern property investor green with envy. In 1988 it was noted restaurants had started to move to more heavily populate "low rent" areas such as the inner east, inner west and near northern suburbs. Property values weren't the only prices to escalate during the 30 years of the Guide. Dinner at the three toque Reflections in 1984 cost the princely sum of $29; by early 2000, prices had broken the $50 main course barrier.

The Guide was also a barometer of Sydney's financial state. When times got tough, cheaper restaurants multiplied. When the mid '80s credit crunch hit, it was noted a three-course lunch at one of the city's "toffy" places was available at a modest $9.95 price tag.

Avoiding the icebergs

Raspberry vinegar was inevitably replaced by balsamic. Our 1980s devotion to sticky-date pudding was supplanted by tiramisu (which has since been usurped by panna cotta). We've had the pesto plague, the Caesar salad craze, pizza with lamb, bruschetta and an over-the-top obsession with duck confit in the early 2000s. A trail of truffle oil and foam led to pork belly and scallops.

In 1984 Sydney seemingly had one type of lettuce: iceberg. In 2014 you'd need to list them in alphabetical order.

Yes, there was an innocence to those early years. Reviewers rather sweetly referred to dessert as ''pudding''. And for a few years celebrity endorsement was given pride of place in the nascent Guide. Readers discovered Eileen Bond loved to chow down at Johnny Walker in the city, Dame Joan Sutherland supped at the Boatshed and John Singleton was a fan of the Cottage, at Cessnock. This annual survey of the Who's Who of Sydney eventually faded. But not before the Art Gallery of NSW supremo Edmund Capon lodged a vote for McDonald's. "The element of surprise in what will squirt out from the sides of the first tumultuous bite into a Big Mac is eternally a moment of ecstasy," he gushed in the foreword of the 1984 Guide.

From its very first issue the Guide vehemently pointed out the impartiality of its reviewers. That all meals were paid for, no favours given. And it charted the massive changes that swept the industry.

From the scrapping of deductibility for business meals in the 1980s, to random breath testing, the ban on smoking, the introduction of GST and a plethora of obstacles you'd think would cumulatively cripple the industry.

Yet it has grown. Changes to liquor laws and the opening up of the city's laneways has seen the number of venues and small bars in the city explode. You mightn't open a successful restaurant these days with a stack of doilies and some plastic roses, but a new generation is finding ways to start out on a budget by using street artists instead of costly designers, while the top end of town still throw millions at a fitout.

Live music and the haze of cigarette smoke has faded from our restaurants over the past 30 years, but the Guide's commitment to unearthing the best of the best has never waned. And some things never change. Sydneysiders can still get a schnitzel at Bill & Toni's.

The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide 2015 will be available for $10 with the newspaper on Saturday, September 6 from participating newsagents, while stocks last. It can also be purchased in selected bookshops and online at smhshop.com.au for $24.99 from September 2.