9b Gordon St Elsternwick, VIC 3185
|Opening hours||Dinner daily|
|Features||Accepts bookings, Licensed, Romance-first date, Pre-post-theatre, Bar, Vegetarian friendly|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9087 3947|
What's so good about originality anyway? That's the question underpinning Copycat, a warm and canny amalgam of other people's great ideas in a space adjoining Elsternwick's Classic Cinemas.
Copycat is built on the view that humans – Melbourne ones, particularly – have already worked out how to craft bars, restaurants and post-flick chat zones, so the owners have artfully, gleefully bowerbirded and copycatted to create a venue that feels familiar and surprisingly good all at once.
Copycat is nimble, working for drinks, snacks and long, luscious meals. Half an hour until your film starts sounds like the perfect window for ceviche and the bracing embrace of a lemon myrtle martini. If you're flying solo, there are comfortable people-watching perches and nooks. Dating? The dining room amps the romance with its curved, bagged brick walls and slinky banquettes. There's also Melbourne's best new place for a pash: a hidden sunken lounge at the rear with a plush bench and gee-you-look-amazing lighting.
Owners and brothers Nick and Zac Beerens grew up in the neighbourhood. Nick, almost 30, is the hospo guy, training under coffee entrepreneur Julien Moussi, whose Only Hospitality group has 15 venues and counting. Moussi is still a mentor; Nick oversees the venue's look, feel and daily operations.
Zac, a few years older, is a science and engineering graduate who is allergic to customer service; he does back-end office and infrastructure.
The brothers also own Armadale's Mammoth, which they bought in 2018, turning it from flailing hipster hang to community darling.
Copycat was a pandemic project, not just the second plank in an empire – though it is that, with third venue Hank's Bagelry opening near Mammoth in June – but a way to keep valued staff engaged. At a time when every restaurant is struggling to find experienced and committed professionals, Copycat is notable for the polish and verve of its front-of-house workers.
The place runs at a clip, but the staff are shepherding it along, not hanging on for dear life. As a diner, it's a lovely feeling. Whether you need to catch a movie or catch the eye of a waiter for another pinot, they've got it in hand.
It's a good job the Beerens brothers prize continuity and depth, because their executive chef, Kevin Middleton, is away for an extended period. Two days before Russia invaded Ukraine, Middleton and wife Jessica's baby, Alba, was born prematurely in Odessa to a surrogate mother. The couple are on the Moldovan border, trying to reach them.
Meanwhile Middleton's team is doing a crack job of keeping his smart, mod-Oz menu on track. Yeasted flatbread is served with lemony skordalia, a white bean dip with a za'atar spice mix that's an aromatic caress.
Herb-marinated tomatoes are a generous counterpoint to glossy, compressed watermelon, a tasty rubble of dehydrated olives and the crumbly punch of shanklish cheese. It's both arty salad and seasonal dance.
I'm not a big fan of ordering chicken in restaurants: surely chook we can cook at home. But the bird here stands up. Partially deboned half-chicken is brined so it's juicy and full-flavoured, then water bath-cooked so it stays super plump. The skin is savagely seared in a pan to be beautifully crisp, then the joint is flashed in the oven and then served with anticucho sauce, a Peruvian preparation big on chilli, oregano and garlic. Arguments against poultry start to seem paltry in the face of all this goodness.
Vegan dishes include leek tarte tatin, made with Nuttelex pastry, caramelised leeks, leek jam, almond feta and a hazelnut dukkah that brings warm spice and spark. Jerusalem artichoke wedges are also vegan, fried with polenta, scattered with crisped saltbush and served alongside hummus puddled with vibrant, delicious parsley oil.
Middleton trained at Donovans, home of one of Melbourne's most beloved bombes Alaska. His version conceals salted macadamia parfait and a chocolate brownie base. Technically, it's perfect. Emotionally, it's rapturous.
So is Copycat a copycat? I'd say it's a coalescence, an homage to the restaurant as happy place. If you want the wheel reinvented, this might not be for you. If you want a confident, responsive dining experience, this cool cat is a win.
Vibe: Come-as-you-are neighbourhood charmer
Go-to dish: Twice-cooked half-chicken with anticucho sauce
Drinks: A perfectly pitched cocktail and wine list that balances comfort, surprise and genteel adventure
Cost: Small: $14-$32; Large: $32-$48; Dessert: $16-$18
This review was originally published in Good Weekend magazine