Since The Sydney Morning Herald kick-started Good Food Month in 1998, Sydney has experienced a golden age of food, restaurants and hospitality. While the fruits of Good Food Month shine today – and into the future – with events such as the perennially popular Night Noodle Markets, Sydney has put itself on the global food map with a combination of excellence and innovation – and perhaps the odd fad and brain fade. Here are 20 memorable moments in the two decades since the inaugural Good Food Month.
When Sydney partied like it was 1999, because it was, we did it surrounded by expensive table linen and cut crystal. A high-water mark year for fine dining, no fewer than five gastro temples sat at the culinary summit with three chefs' hats in the 1999 Good Food Guide (remember Forty One and MG Garage?). It was the year the Herald's food section went from broadsheet to tabloid, and Sydney's second wave of French bistros kicked in with the opening of steak frites central, Tabou, in Surry Hills. Meanwhile, Bodee, Bobby and Starlet were undergoing training as Australia's first truffle sniffing dogs for a new luxury food industry taking shape in Tasmania.
It was the year of the Sydney Olympics, but it was also the year the Sydney CBD started hopping again. Tetsuya's relocated from Rozelle to the city, and even overseas chefs jumped on our urban push, Volnay restaurant firing up French finery on Jamison Street with Michel Rostang its consultant chef. But it was Justin Hemmes' opening of Establishment on George Street that really set hearts racing. The city wasn't exactly down and out for dining, but it was pretty scratchy. Establishment was a big, bold gamble that Sydney would follow the hospitality boom of other global metropoles. Opening on the eve of the Olympics, it ladled out a fine dining restaurant, est., shape-setting Japanese Sushi e and arguably our city's first truly international-standard lounge bar, Hemmesphere. The CBD hasn't looked back, and is now the undisputed first look location for budding Sydney restaurateurs and bar tsars.
If 2001 was the Chinese Zodiac Year of the Snake, in Sydney town it was the undisputed Year of the Duck. The only thing that matched duck for popularity that year was the pashmina plague sweeping our boutiques. A rash of duck-centric stories littered the media. One wag even quipped The Good Food Guide should be renamed "The Good Duck Guide". Not just any duck; duck confit made its way on to scores of menus across town. The spiritual home of the dish, Darlinghurst's Onde restaurant, closed late last year, after serving an estimated 250,000 duck legs during its run.
2002 was the year of Sydney's gelato wars. Gelato wasn't exactly new to Sydney, but generations raised on supermarket ice-cream tubs had most of their fleeting gelato interaction via those glossy menus at Italian restaurants. Gelato was perfect for Sydney's climate and 2002 saw a number of start-ups reading the market at the same time. The now ubiquitous Gelatissimo debuted that year, but it was the opening of a small gelataria in Darlinghurst that provided the genre's Willy Wonka moment. Gelato Messina punched out everything from salted caramel to pear and rhubarb in gelato form and earned such a reputation for flavours, it was drafted to craft its own range of Tim Tams. The Messina empire now stretches as far as Brisbane and Las Vegas.
When Martin Place restaurant Banc closed its doors in 2003, it was a dark day for the pointy end of Sydney dining. While the golden age of fine dining hadn't exactly expired, the taste for the high end – and the backing needed to sustain it – had taken a major blow. Think of the venues Sydney has lost over the years – names like Ampersand, Restaurant VII, Pier, Bilson's, Marque and Eleven Bridge. We'd only just survived the threat of the Y2K bug when Circular Quay fine diner Cadmus closed its doors within days of Banc, its owner blaming the double-whammy on trade of SARS (remember that?) and the war in Iraq.
The scent of the previous century continued to waft over into the 21st, our restaurants still perfuming their dishes with truffle oil in 2004. Sydney can get a bit fixated and over-excited with an ingredient or idea. Watch out, the panna cotta pandemic proved to be just around the corner.
The Swans finally broke a 72-year premiership drought in 2005, but in food as in footy, Sydney was littered with Melbourne imports. The South Melbourne-turned-Sydney Swans mirrored a food assault that started with chefs such as Damien Pignolet and Tony Bilson and continues to this day. From Maurice Terzini's Icebergs Dining Room to Luke Mangan at Salt and the 2017 arrival of Chris Lucas' Chin Chin, Sydney seemingly can't get enough of our southern cousins.
2006 marked the beginning of el Bulli's four-year run as undisputed champion on The World's 50 Best Restaurants list, creating a global wave of molecular gastronomy that made it all the way to Australia. The crackers at Tomislav restaurant in Darlinghurst were doused with salt and vinegar mist from a spray bottle, and at the InterContinental Sydney, a nitrogen-infused apple sorbet arrived with its own mortar and pestle, with diners expected to DIY their own crumble. It proved a ripple rather than a culinary tsunami, and the tide of foams on our plates retreated and mostly evaporated.
There wasn't a restaurant in 2007 worth its Maldon sea salt that wasn't offering a degustation menu. Indeed, there were even cafes and pubs trotting out a "deg". This high watermark year for surrendering more time to your meal than attending a Wagner opera may also have jumped the shark in 2007. Fine diner Astral upped the ante with a $1000-a-head crab raviolio and poached lobster-fuelled 10-course menu. "Actually, it costs $2000, since dining solo for a meal like this is as much fun as sex on your own," Good Food restaurant critic Simon Thomsen quipped in his 2007 review. The deg has been in slow decline since, but is still a fixture at our top-end diners. Which is exactly where it belongs.
In a city where size usually matters, Sydney shirked its usual appetite for big and brash for a more diminutive movement in 2008: small bars. "We opened on December 8," remembers Chris Lane, the founder and co-owner of the appropriately named Small Bar in Erskine Street, which beat a packed field of applicants to be anointed Sydney's first small bar. The Liquor Amendment (Small Bars and Restaurants) Bill had just come into force, allowing small cafes and bars easier and quicker access to a liquor licence. It created a liquid gold rush, and Sydney's the more interesting for it. "No one really knew if it was going to take off," Lane says. But it did. "I can't keep up, but there were about 150 last time I had a guesstimate," he adds.
With their airline deals, commercial endorsements and TV appearances, 2009 was the year chefs were welcomed in our homes on a first-name basis. It was also the year MasterChef Australia first aired. While MasterChef made a couple of Melbourne-based pan rattlers famous (we're looking at you George and Gary), the fame would spread. Two lesser known Sydney-based chefs, Peter Evans and Manu Feildel, were quietly signed to My Kitchen Rules, which would go to air early the following year. Within months we were calling them Pete and Manu, adding Colin a few years later.
If a Sydney dessert deserves its own Wikipedia listing, it's Peter Gilmore's snow egg. Sydney's been blessed with some cracking sugar-fuelled creations like Black Star Pastry's strawberry watermelon cake (which has become so famous, billionaire Louis Li recently bought a slice of the business). But when Quay's snow egg featured on MasterChef in 2010, the Circular Quay restaurant's reservation line lit up and extra staff were rostered on to keep up with orders for the dessert. "We've had people phone up asking if we do it as takeaway," Quay general manager John Fink told Good Food at the time. And how many desserts have their own retirement story? After knocking out over 500,000 snow eggs, Gilmore dropped it from Quay's menu when the redesigned restaurant reopened in July.
Sydney was well acquainted with good pizza. There was a spell in the 1990s when we got a little "designer" with our toppings, horrifying Italian tourists with exotic additions such as salmon, lamb and rocket and tandoori chicken. But if you went looking, namely in Sydney's inner-west, there was good stuff to be found. But the opening of Via Napoli, on Sydney's north shore, in late 2011, proved a turning point. Authentic Naples-style pizza had broken the shackles of Sydney's Italian community. Now it's hard to find a pocket of Sydney that doesn't have a wood-fire oven and a steady supply of buffalo mozzarella.
Oxford Street has long been used to take the temperature of the Sydney restaurant scene, and a 2012 Good Food cover story had it listed as critical, with 61 real estate signs dotting its length. Twelve months later the news got worse, with the dining stalwart of the arterial, Claude's, closing after trotting out souffles since 1976. The nursery of Mod Oz cuisine, Oxford Street nurtured the early careers of everyone from Neil Perry to Matt Moran, and was home base for some of city's most progressive restaurants in the 1980s. But the worm has turned back for the strip in recent years, with an infusion of Merivale (Fred's, The Paddington) and Josh Niland's Saint Peter restaurant. Sydney's boom or bust eat street is on a bull run again.
When fire ripped through the Surry Hills site where chef Warren Turnbull had operated his hatted restaurant, Albion Street Kitchen, he made a brave decision. Turnbull decided to move a burger pop-up he'd run behind the restaurant onto centre stage. Chur Burger was born, and with it a movement of fine-dining chefs trading the whisk for a burger flipper. Neil Perry had long had a burger on the bar menu at Rockpool Bar & Grill, driven by wanting to use all of the carcasses of wagyu he was buying for his restaurant. That idea morphed into Burger Project. It didn't take long for the message to spread: Becasse's Justin North was involved in a north-side burger start-up, and Banc alumni Paul Camilleri headed south, opening Eat Burger in Cronulla.
The Sydney hospitality world is no stranger to government intervention, but the 2014 introduction of the lockout laws caused a level of unseen angst. Over the decades the industry had taken a series of business deflating acronyms on the chin, from GST to FBT and RBT. They even had to ask their Gitane-waving regulars to stub out after smoking bans were introduced. But the lockout laws and their complicated attempts to reduce alcohol-fuelled violence was a bridge too far for many. This battle isn't over.
2015 was the year the macaron was elbowed out of the way. Like the cupcake and friand before it, a new kid was in town. Not fried chicken (but yes, that as well). The doughnut/donut/cronut was back, big time. Really?
Pop-ups have, well, been popping up in Sydney at the rate of new parking meters since we clocked over into a new millennium. But there was something different about the pop-up that landed at Barangaroo in 2016. To start, it was one of the world's best restaurants, Copenhagen's Noma. The dining DNA might have been Danish, but what it delivered caused us to get more in touch with the lesser championed products of our own soil, ocean, rivers and dams.
Sydney has lost plenty of influential food figures over the past 20 years, from Anders Ousback to restaurant pioneers Beppi Polese and Oliver Shaul. The death of chef Jeremy Strode in 2017 ushered in a mix of collective industry heartbreak and awe for what the Englishman achieved in Sydney fine-dining at MG Garage and, later, Bistrode, as well as his mentoring of young talent. But it also shone a torch on mental health, a subject about which Strode was candid. He'd want us all to ask each other R U OK?
The food historians will record Sydney diners hit a lazy patch in 2018, with a plethora of home-delivery services filling our streets with more scooters than rush hour in Bangkok. Restaurants returned serve, with complaints the commissions charged left little in the way of profit and some felt they were losing touch with their diners, spending more time looking at a computer screen than a customer in the eye. Time will tell if we prefer dining out or eating on our sofas.
Good Food Month, October 4-21, 2018
The delicious events include:
THE MASTERS SERIES
Bill Granger – 6.30pm, Monday, October 15
Ross Lusted – 6.30pm, Tuesday, October 16
Join editor of Good Food, Ardyn Bernoth, and former Good Food Guide editor and festival director of Good Food Month, Joanna Savill, as they invite legendary master chefs Bill Granger and Ross Lusted to explore the most influential dishes, menus and cookbooks from the past 20 years.
Tickets $150 (tickets include a three-course dinner with wines, beer and whisky.) Hyde Park Palms pop-up restaurant.
Chef and owner of LA's iconic Rose Cafe in Venice Beach, Jason Neroni, will grace Sydney with his globally influenced Southern California cuisine for the first time.
Tickets $140 (tickets include canapes, grazing table, wine and beer). Hyde Park Palms pop-up restaurant, 6.30pm, Friday, October 12.
Go to goodfoodmonth.com for more information.