Sydney dining institution Claude's will close in September, the latest victim of the city's push towards mid-market restaurants.
John Kerr was governor-general when Claude's served its first passionfruit souffle in 1976, the same year Apple Computers was founded. Claude's had its own Apple-style stab at reinvention last year with a redesign and new ground floor bar but co-owner and chef Chui Lee Luk said the bumper crowds that flowed after the relaunch soon thinned.
"People aren't willing to spend as much for a meal any more. They want more flexibility and faster meals. Everyone has to fit more in their days," she said.
It is a story repeated across the Sydney dining landscape. Upmarket Rose Bay restaurant Pier morphed into the cheaper Sailors Club, the Sydney Opera House wants a bistro to replace Guillaume at Bennelong when it closes at the end of the year, and chef Warren Turnbull has turned Assiette in Surry Hills into burger joint, Chur Burger.
Lee Luk will follow the same path. She'll cook the classics at Claude's until its final service on September 7, decamping to Surry Hills where she'll open Chow, a bar-restaurant with dishes mainly costing in the low $20s, a far cry from her $140 eight-course degustation at Claude's. Lee Luk said her business partner, Phillip Haw, would open a casual-style restaurant at the Oxford Street site.
Claude's etched itself early into Sydney dining circles. The original owner, Claude Corne, sold it to Damien and Josephine Pignolet in 1981, who collected a hatstand of toques from The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide. Its then head chef Tim Pak Poy bought the restaurant in 1993, selling it in 2004 to Lee Luk, who had been working there since 2000.
A lawyer turned chef, Lee Luk brought her meticulous eye to Claude's food, maintaining its favour with critics. But she said rising staff and produce costs "at a time when customers won't pay more" had made Claude's an increasingly difficult proposition.
Sydney has also changed, with shopfront restaurants such as Claude's increasingly competing with those offering water views.
Lee Luk isn't concerned about moving away from fine dining. "I'm really looking forward to be able to show what makes hawker food so exciting at Chow."
Is she sad about being Claude's last chef? "I've spent most of my cooking career there, but it's time. Claude, Damian and Tim all moved on. I don't have to feel I have to stay."