Comfort eating takes on new flavour as Sydney embraces dining out once more

Myffy Rigby
Devilled eggs at Cafe Paci.
Devilled eggs at Cafe Paci. Photo: Edwina Pickles

Vol-au-vents, Marie Rose sauce and prawn cocktails, oh my. The '70s and '80s are riding high in Sydney restaurants.   

Coming out of lockdown, new wave dining has taken on an old wave bent. In an uncertain time, menus that speak to comfort and reassuring nostalgia are a welcome thing, and fine dining chefs are happily ditching the tweezers in favour of the dishes of their childhoods. 

This new-wave-old-wave trend is less about the irony of, say, a fine-dining riff on the Vienetta or Iced VoVo, (both have made restaurant cameos in recent times) and more about warmth, nourishment and recognition.  

Mussel schnitzel at Ursula's
Mussel schnitzel at Ursula's  Photo: Wolter Peeters

The restaurant that's really thrown itself body and soul into the concept of family and familiarity is newcomer Ursula's in Paddington, at the old Darcy's site. 

Chef Phil Wood, who recently moved back to Sydney from the Mornington Peninsula with his wife and business partner Lis Davies and their baby daughter Cressida, is heavily influenced by old Australian and New Zealand cookbooks.

At Ursula's you'll find golden syrup dumplings straight from the Flo Bjelke-Petersen play book; snapper with Keen's Curry powder vinaigrette; lamb and mint sauce; and a lobster and mango salad Margaret Fulton would be proud of.   

Corella restaurant in Canberra.
Corella restaurant in Canberra. Photo: Supplied

"The thing about coming out of lockdown," says Wood, "is people need to learn to eat out again and those nostalgic dishes help make the transition more comforting and familiar." 

At Paddington bistro Porcine, there's a sense of play on the menu but always bedded in strong French style and technique. It's a passion of Porcine chef Nicholas Hill, who describes his cooking style as "vintage French with a bit of British seasoning".

He says there's a kind of addiction to cooking from the old books of the 70s and 80s, many of which he displays in the restaurant, for solo diners who need something to read. "I really love that era – it feels really natural and beautiful. A really romantic way to cook." 

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Currently, Hill has a thing for vol-au-vents, filling the little pastry cups with just about anything the kitchen comes up with, including a scallop and champagne number for the high rollers.

City wine bar Monopole is also busting out the flaky hors d'oeuvres, gracing vol-au-vents with sweet corn custard in a true ode to an era that brought us body waves, jogging and Malcolm McLaren. 

Even bars and pubs are getting in on the action. Check out the new-look Enmore Hotel, former home of The Sly Fox and straight out of the mind palace of Rennie Ellis where cold beer, Aussie nostalgia (there's a jaffle menu) and very good pies reign supreme.  

Duck pate at Porcine in Paddington.
Duck pate at Porcine in Paddington.  Photo: Edwina Pickles

Meanwhile, road-trippers can experience the trend at Canberra newcomer Corella where there is no shortage of fun on the menu. Fries arrive with a retro Thousand Island sauce concocted with bush tomato and the drinks list brims with similar local pride. 

The classics are classics for a reason. 

Five restaurants for a taste of nostalgia, from The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide 2022

Ursula's

Former Rockpool head chef, Phil Wood and his wife, Lis Davies have taken up residence in the delightful corner terrace that was Darcy's. Wood's food explores what he calls "new Australian" food, knitting the fashions of the day (smoked mortadella, mussel schnitzel) with those of yesteryear (peach Melba, golden syrup dumplings). 92 Hargrave Street, Paddington, 0499 525 235, ursulas.com.au.

Cafe Paci

Finnish chef Pasi Petanen brings a wild sense of creative freedom to his buzzy Newtown diner, recreating memories of Finnish school lunches. He's even brought back the steak diane. There's energy on the floor, low-intervention (but not low-priced) wines behind the long curved bar and specials of cosy, shareable dishes. 131 King Street, Newtown, 02 9550 6196, cafepaci.com.au

Corella

This sunny Canberra newcomer has made a swift impression with its smart menu of share-plates spiked with '80s nostalgia. Crucially, neither feel gratuitous, whether in the warm rye sourdough served with a punchy mix of butter and Vegemite sprinkled with saltbush, or the burnt honey mousse surrounded by house-made cocoa pops and topped with lemon myrtle oil. 14 Lonsdale Street, Braddon, 02 6189 0757, corellabar.com.au.

Monopole

Chef Brent Savage and sommelier Nick Hildebrandt's wine bar, with its lightflooded izakaya-style room, is a devotion to maximum flavour with minimum flourishes. On the food-front, there's Australia's pepperiest pepper steak on the regular menu but leaving that aside, there's also their special New Year's Eve menu coming up – a 1980s inspired party featuring all the classics from the era plus wine from the same decade. 20 Curtin Place, Sydney, 02 8080 9144, monopolesydney.com.au

Porcine

The menu: alt-bistro frat party, always ready for fun. Garlic mussels on toast, say, or a boiled potato, chopped egg, and smoked eel salad. And although high respect goes to the calves shin, snail and garlic pie (replete with shinbone pie bird), the bruleed prune and custard tart is the stuff of dreams. 268 Oxford Street, Paddington, 0423 015 032, porcine.com.au.  

The Good Food Guide 2022 magazine will be published November 30 with presenting partners Citi and Vittoria Coffee, and free with The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. Also on sale from December 7 in newsagents and supermarkets.