Icon review: bills, Darlinghurst

Everything remains in its right place at bills.
Everything remains in its right place at bills. Photo: Wolter Peeters

433 Liverpool Street Darlinghurst, New South Wales 2010

View map

Features Breakfast-brunch, Family friendly, Gluten-free options, Vegetarian friendly, Accepts bookings, Licensed
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Chef Kentero Takayama
Payments eftpos, AMEX, Cash, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 02 9360 9631

The theory of quantum mechanics suggests that all possible outcomes of any situation do occur, albeit in their own separate universes. Sliding Doors theory – in one universe you turn left; in another you hook right. If the theory is true, a world exists where a 23-year-old Bill Granger stays in art school and never opens a cafe in a remodelled Darlinghurst pub.

What a grey world to live in. A universe, potentially, without communal restaurant tables and avocado toast. One in which Granger's ricotta hotcakes don't become Sydney's most iconic dish and the self-taught cook never perfects his recipe for golden, curdy scrambled eggs. Brunch never takes off as A Thing and corn fritters don't become a corpse-reviving constant of every suburban cafe.

Thank heavens that in our universe Granger is better with pans than paints.

Ricotta hotcakes with banana and honeycomb butter.
Ricotta hotcakes with banana and honeycomb butter. Photo: Wolter Peeters

The bloke with the whitest smile in the restaurant business now operates outposts of bills (always with a lowercase "b") in Tokyo, Honolulu and Seoul, plus four Granger and Co. restaurants in London. There are bills in Bondi and Surry Hills too, but the original has my heart for its easy-like-Sunday-morning vibes and that beautiful communal oak table bearing flowers, sponge cake and bowls of fat lemons.

Everything remains in its right place more than 25 years after the cafe opened. The room is flooded by sunlight, but never glary, with blond tables and Pierre Jeanneret-style chairs engineered for morning crosswords and uplifting food.

Granger developed a love for simple Mediterranean-inspired cooking in the early '90s while waiting tables at Chrissie Juillet's La Passion du Fruit on Oxford Street, Paddington. Already an eager home cook, he rented the Passion tearoom to try his hand at late-night supper clubs before taking the keys to a low-rent site near St Vincent's.

Silky scrambled eggs and sourdough toast with bills spiced Bloody Mary.
Silky scrambled eggs and sourdough toast with bills spiced Bloody Mary. Photo: Wolter Peeters

Before bills, scrambled eggs in Australia were a mostly dry experience, accompanied by too much tomato sauce and shiv-like bacon. With the power of a hot pan and heavy cream, Granger transformed scrambled eggs into a silk-lined luxury. Served on sourdough toast, the eggs cost $16 today with a carte of side options, including cumin roast tomatoes ($4), herbed garlic mushrooms ($6.50) and jasmine tea-smoked salmon ($10.50).

Avocado on toasted rye ($15) is sharpened with chilli flakes, lime and coriander. Although avo toast was common in 1960s California (and quite probably Central America 5000 years ago), bills popularised the upwardly mobile icon in its modern "Sydney" style, and the creamy current version is what brunch dreams are made of.

Meanwhile, fluffy ricotta hotcakes ($23.50) with banana and a melting puck of honeycomb butter are a bonafide Granger original. The dessert disguised as breakfast has become a phenomenon in Japan since bills launched there in 2008 and I once saw a minibus park outside the Darlo cafe so onboard Japanese tourists could photograph the shopfront. Waiting 45 minutes for a table must not have been on the itinerary.

'Nduja, xo and prawn fried rice.
'Nduja, xo and prawn fried rice. Photo: Wolter Peeters

Bills does serve lunch, by the way, and fried rice laced with 'nduja, prawns and XO ($28) has the power to blow off any cobwebs caused by the night before. Administer one chilli-kicked bloody mary ($18.50) if you're especially dusty and see a parmesan-crumbed chicken schnitzel ($26) if pain persists.

For all the breezy lemon-watered influence of bills on Sydney cafes, few modern breakfast venues hold their own against Granger's original. Bills still sets a benchmark for giving a damn. You can order champagne before lunch, help-yourself magazines are new issues and staff seem genuinely happy that you're there. It's the little things, you know? Plus, those hotcakes are still worth crossing suburbs for – and perhaps even countries, too.

Est. 1993

Signature dishes scrambled eggs ($16); ricotta hotcakes, banana and honeycomb butter ($23.50); sweet corn fritters, roast tomato, spinach and bacon ($24.50); toasted rye, avocado, lime, chilli and coriander ($15).

Famous diners Ralph Fiennes, Sir Terence Conran, Leonardo DiCaprio, Baz Luhrmann, Jamie Oliver, Julia Roberts, Keanu Reeves, Cate Blanchett, Tom Cruise, Nigella Lawson.

https://www.bills.com.au/darlinghurst