Staff shortages, plunging profits, drought. Big corporations changing the landscape. Whichever way you cut it, this was not an easy year for restaurants. As for diners, the endless snacky stimuli from Instagram, TV shows and cookbooks may have left you exhausted. But here's another way to look at it: out of the reckoning comes the reset. Things got tough and the tough got changing. Operators ditched the rat race to build tiny restaurants. You can now sleep where you dine. And art and live music are back on the table, reconnecting us with the theatre of dining out. So, store your devices and your woes. With the recent release of the Good Food Guide 2020, we're also saluting an industry that never says die.
The big picture
What went down?
Brisbane 10-seater Joy was named Best New Restaurant in the Good Food Guide. Photo: Paul Harris
1. Tiny proved mighty
Some of the nicest places to eat in Australia right now are probably those with fewer than 20 seats. Some restaurateurs are switching big rents for bijou spaces and putting those savings back on the plate. It's not just financial. It's the attention you get at Brisbane 10-seater Joy. It's the no-waste economics of smaller scales, too. Places like Greasy Zoes in Hurstbridge and Ballarat's Underbar buy and break down the exact number of animals for their service of 14 and 12 respectively. Small spaces, huge wins.
2. Sleeping with the dishes
Going to sleep on restaurant grounds used to get you barred. No more. Restaurateurs are becoming hoteliers, boosting their bottom line and creating 3D dining staycations. Stillwater in Launceston spills its produce-loving philosophy into well-stocked room larders. Victoria's Brae extends the degustation experience to slipping on gumboots and visiting the hens with a martini. Victoria's Captain Moonlite and Napier Quarter both have Airbnbs. Hotels are also lifting their food game with places like Brisbane hotel The Calile installing hatted restaurant Hellenika.
Potato damper at Adelaide's Orana. Photo: David Solm
3. Restaurants got woke
Let's hear it for our fine-dining trailblazers using their storytelling powers to put tougher ideas on the table. We're beyond provenance chat. Pre-dessert, Attica has diners step into a futuristic apocalypse bunker for faux-meat burgers and sweets made of plant waste, pulled from a vending machine. Brae spotlights the drought with bowls made from clay dug from empty dams. Orana continues to amplify the struggles and successes of budding Indigenous food businesses.
4. A precinct rethink
Restaurant precinct used to be a dirty term. Now it's looking like the future, generating buzz and making it more affordable for young restaurateurs to get in the door. Sydney's two-hectare Darling Square, home to Golden Century's next iteration, XOPP, is perfectly pitched for the post-Chinatown generation. It's a Bladerunner-like maze of noodle and tapas bars and bubble tea shops – there's even a walk-in bottle shop and bar. The Melbourne equivalent looks set to be New Chinatown, the 4000-square-metre hawker-style food market coming to Station Street, Box Hill, in April 2020.
Alanna Sapwell's signature layer cake iced with finger lime pearls served at Arc Dining at Howard Smith Wharves, Brisbane. Photo: Paul Harris
5. Brisbane boomed
There's gold here, and we're not just talking about tins of XXXX. Between Howard Smith Wharves collecting some of Australia's most exciting talent, such as Louis Tikaram, and restaurants such as Hellenika, Joy, Honto and Little Valley taking residence in the city's Fortitude Valley party district, Brisbane has plenty to celebrate.
6. Into the woods
There's wood-fired cooking (see: everyone) and then there's true coals-based nerdery. That's right, wood terroir is now a thing. The true masters of the art – Lennox Hastie from Sydney's Firedoor, the Porteno team and Aaron Turner at Geelong's Igni – are paying as much attention to the provenance of their grapevines and fruit woods as their produce, transforming your world with a flick of the switch they're burning.
Mary's Underground in the Basement at Sydney's Circular Quay. Photo: Supplied
7. Dinner and a whoa
The original Good Food Guide in 1980 had chapters on live entertainment and even disco. Well, the good times are back and Melbourne's Di Stasio Citta is leading the engine-revving charge. It's the pulse of the room that gets you. Video projections by artists Reko Rennie and Shaun Gladwell take your eyes for a ride, and judicious slashes of red get the blood up and wallet open. At Mona's Faro, you break up dinner by immersing yourself in artist James Turrell's flashing sphere. In Sydney at Mary's Underground duck frites, seafood towers and stage shows co-exist again. Amen.
8. Boundary-pushing bars
In 2011, Aussie bars worshipped America and its love of bacon-washed cocktails, prohibition-era drinks and Mad Men. In 2019, bar nerds are not only spotlighting local wine and spirit producers but, in the case of Sydney's Bulletin Place, its pivotal fruit suppliers, via meet-the-grower sessions. Melbourne bars such as Lay Low and Galah are going waste-free, transforming avocado pits and citrus into tonics and syrups. Newcomer Byrdi is smoking, distilling and fermenting on site. It's a brave new world.
9. Battle of the vegan burger
Big businesses are falling over themselves to wear the faux-meat crown. It's like the space race for burgers. US company Beyond Meat Co. was publicly listed in June. But Impossible Foods (whose hallmark is that its product "bleeds") is fighting hard, and Australia's own Alternative Meat Co. got in on the action in May. Watch this busy space.
10. Thrifty, delicious carbs
Carbs of all creeds are back, in the form of bread dishes (focaccia dressed with everything from stracciatella to lard continues its rule), sandwiches, souvas, pies and pizzas (Melbourne has 10 new pizza shops since August). We're not complaining, but we do wonder if stacking the menu with appealing and somewhat thrifty carbs at premium prices is about giving the people what they want, or another way for venues to balance the books.
Bodriggy Brew Pub in Abbotsford, Melbourne. Photo: Wayne Taylor
11. Brewery bars blew up
This year we saw a Chernobyl-level explosion of breweries flinging open their doors (Melbourne's Bodriggy, Moon Dog World, and Sydney's Yulli's and Sauce are immense, and pumping), all but replacing pubs. Why? The next gen can own brew bars. They're often big, airy, greenery-trimmed spaces, ticking a lot of those idealistic boxes of serving small batch, crafted products and supporting local businesses. No pokies. Big tables. Rotating food trucks. Great branding. What's not to love?
Dishes that defined
What did we eat on repeat?
12. Serious sandwiches
Sandwiches underwent a renaissance. Sure, these new-wave sangers can clock in at between $12 and $18, but many can feed two, with every element pickled, smoked or baked in-house. All hail the veal and anchovy banger at Alberto's Lounge, Sydney; Matt Wilkinson's mortadella and salad sangers at Pope Joan, Melbourne, and the glorious French Dip at Sydney's Continental Deli (pictured).
Mushroom pie from LuMi. Photo: Supplied
13. Pie times
This year, chefs got dainty with pastry. The luxurious pie in everyone's eye has been Federico Zanaletto's glossy, golden hand-tooled shiitake and pork pithivier at Sydney's LuMi, served with chicken jus gras for dipping, no less. Sepia chef Nicholas Hill transformed the pork pie into a tart for eternal glory at Sydney's Old Fitz. Pies got tableside service at both Richmond's Noir and Boathouse on Blackwattle Bay. It's the glory they deserve.
14. Tuckshop treats
It was a bumper 12 months for high-end riffs on Australian kiosk kitsch. We ate wattleseed Caramello-style koalas at Barangaroo's Bea (pictured) and luxed-up neenish tarts via Peter Gilmore at Bennelong, while Vue de Monde threw down a Davidson plum Iced Vovo. But surely Brae's ethereally battered slice of dutch cream, loaded with brook trout roe and cultured cream, takes the tuckshop-meets-fine-diner potato cake (or scallop, NSW peeps).
15. Barolo on a roll
Step aside, Chablis. We don't know where the Good Food Guide reviewers were getting the budget to drink so much Piemonte nebbiolo, but gosh it turned up a lot in this year's book. We live in risky times, where delicious, affordable pastas co-exist on menus with dangerously good wines.
16. Ducks deluxe
Duck is the new steak. By which we mean: it is the new meat-based status symbol for restaurant-going show ponies. At the hatted Bea at Barangaroo, your burnished bird is carved at the table (pictured) and you'll drop triple figures for the privilege. But we also love that eating duck frites in the dark of night at both Mary's Underground and Melbourne's Bar Margaux became a thing.
17. Sexy souvas
Gyros, kebabs, souvlaki and shawarma are trending and that is a Very Good Thing. In Sydney, it's all about the shawarma, as Mat Lindsay of Ester in Chippendale serves up spice-rubbed lamb neck with burnt honey and harissa, sliced and piled onto wood-fired malted pita bread. It also gets a leg-up at O.My's regional little bar in Victoria's Beaconsfield, where beef and vegetable skewers are served with charred flatbread, pickles and labne.
18. Celebration crabs
If you thought 2018 was a crab fiesta, 2019 only got worse. (For crustaceans. It was great for us.) Top sellers? Cumulus Up's fried green tomatoes and spanner crab; crabby custards galore (Quay's and the foie gras-enriched one at Chuuka especially (pictured)). Sydney's Lankan Filling Station has a curry crab jaffle and special crab Sundays every month.
19. Sticks are on fire
Hot things on sticks are our current hot thing on a stick. Since April, Melbourne has launched skewer houses Eazy Peazy, Mono-XO and Bincho Boss, joining Adelaide's sizzling Sho, while an offshoot of Sydney's Chaco Bar is opening in Potts Point. Why is yakitori back? It's the sweetly smoky nexus of fire and charcoal-led cooking, the space-efficiency of konro grills and the rise of drink-led dining.
Chinese bolognese with 'nduja, XO sauce and prawn floss at Little Valley in Brisbane. Photo: Paul Harris
20. Non-prescriptive bolognese
Ma po tofu jaffles. King prawn "bolognese". Daring things happened to mince staples this year. Witness the glory of Brisbane mod-Chinese Little Valley's hand-pulled noodles with XO bolognese; the house-made maltagliati pasta and cuttlefish "bolognese" at Melbourne's Cumulus Up; and the crazy rich Asian bolognese of slow-cooked chicken mince, crab and prawn paste with udon noodles at Canberra's XO.
Little things we loved
More of this, please
21. Mighty misos
Packet miso became as shunned as instant coffee in 2019. If we're not buying handmade soybean paste from the likes of Shinji Hiraoka, who sells his miso online and every weekend at Sydney farmers' markets including at Carriageworks, we're eating it in restaurants like Adelaide's Orana where chef Jock Zonfrillo has been fermenting his bunya nut miso for two years.
Sakes made by Yulli's Brews. Photo: Dominic Lorrimer
22. Aussie sake
Sake has populated wine lists and been the "surprise" match of sommeliers since at least 2010. But here's the big news: Australian sake has arrived. The Sydney-based lager legends at Yulli's Brews are using NSW rice and the result is unfiltered deliciousness. Yulli's Thylacine Seishu junmai features soft melon aromas, while the cloudy Diprotodon Nigorizake combines old and new brewing techniques for tart flavours reminiscent of kefir.
23. The analog kitchen returns
In a world of hectic schedules, phone alerts and too many gadgets, in 2019 we're casting off complicated kitchen items (sorry, Thermomix) and investing in timeless essentials. There are few things more relaxing than a sharp knife slicing on a heavy timber board, or stirring garlic in a cast-iron pot passed down from a grandparent. A very good knife is your most important tool but make it artisan. Tansu Knives, Tharwa Valley Forge and DP Custom are among the growing number of metalsmiths at the cutting edge.
24. Restaurant-made ceramics
Whether it's because chefs need a soothing outlet, because they're mega control freaks or because they want a specially crafted vessel for a dish, we love that self-made ceramics are hitting restaurant tables. See Melbourne's Navi (pictured), Embla, Attica and Brae.
25. Dairy cow cuts
Move over marbled wagyu – there's a new prestige cow on plates at restaurants, including Rockpool Bar and Grill. An increasing number of sustainable farmers and butchers are reconditioning retired dairy cows into prized cuts of complex flavour rather than letting the meat go to waste. Forget Impossible Burgers, as influential US chef Dan Barber says, "let's call it the Possible Steak".
26. Next-generation butchers
One of social media's most surprising wins for the food world has been the reframing of butchery. Thanks to media-savvy meat boutiques like Meatsmith, Victor Churchill and Josh Niland's Fish Butchery, budding butchers, keen to spread the ethically raised word, are flocking to an industry thought to be facing extinction. The leathers and sharp knives help, but it's the strong stories that have led to the opening of new farm-to-plate Meat Mistress in Hobart, driven chefs from Andrew McConnell's restaurants into Meatsmith to take up apprenticeships and made 27-year-old Ashleigh McBean (pictured), an avid apprentice at her dad's Prahran butchery Gary's Meats, an advocate for tooling up.
27. The Dave Chang Show
Korean-American David Chang, the man behind the Momofuku empire, changed the way we read about food with Lucky Peach magazine, and showed us another side to food TV with his Netflix show Ugly Delicious. Now he's taking a no-holds-barred look at restaurants and food culture with a podcast. He's questioning food criticism, pushing chefs to breaking point and asking hard questions about racism in refreshingly unfiltered interviews.
28. Grower champagnes
What's the grower champagne movement you ask? Sparkling wine is only champagne if it comes from that particular French region. And for generations, that region has been dominated by big houses that pluck grapes from far and wide to ensure a consistent product. Grower champagnes burst that bubble. Made by producers who source grapes exclusively from their own vineyard, they deliver character-filled results. Australian somms can't get enough. Look for labels such as Egly-Ouriet, Vilmart and Chartogne-Taillet.
29. Dark Emu – A truer history
Bruce Pascoe's children's version of his acclaimed 2014 book, Dark Emu, teaches readers about Australia's agricultural history and native flora and fauna in an accessible and page-turning way. Eyewitness accounts from explorers and examples of the ingenious ways Aboriginal people utilised the land provide new insights into the way Australia was before British settlement.
30. Merch to make ends meet
T-shirts, St Peter fish weights, bottled cocktails, Patricia Coffee leather aprons. Restaurants and bars are making their experience wearable. It's not just a low-key fad either. Japanese fashion label Comme des Garçons and Junya Watanabe have collaborated with Fergus Henderson's London-based nose-to-tail eatery St. John to create a white workwear jacket and a tote bag sporting St. John's anatomical pig insignia, available online from January. Hold us back.
Photo: Chloe A. Smith
31. Food art
Are you a dirty food voyeur? Artist Chloe A. Smith creates (not so) edible art from felt. Her recent works have included the noble Chiko Roll, Cynar (drink of summer!), a katsu sando … she's even created a felt scotch egg. You can buy prints of her work and the originals at imakesoftfood.com.
The 2020 Agenda
What we want to see next
32. No more jumping that shark
All-pink fitouts. Fairy floss nightmare breakfasts. Anything from butter to scrambled eggs flavoured with cheese and pepper being labelled cacio e pepe. Stop the roller coaster, we want to get off.
33. Eat an unloved fish
Thinking outside the flathead box is going to prove vital for seafood sustainability. Launched in 2017, Fair Fish South Australia promotes the use of lesser-known fish species such as nannygai and snook by connecting fishers directly to restaurants and the public through an online subscription service. And the Australian Marine Conservation Society's Good Fish Project has enlisted more than 40 leading Australian chefs, who have committed to no longer serving unsustainable seafood. Let's encourage more chefs to follow champs such as Amy Hamilton, who offers "shit fish" specials at Liberte in WA, whereby smoked pike might find its way onto a cassava cracker.
Photo: Getty Images
34. Eating, not Instagramming
Could snapping food for social media be on the way out? Ca-razy! We've noticed regular Instagram users are now valuing conversation at the table over digital approval. Plus some restaurateurs are giving us cosy, dark, photos-be-damned spaces again.
35. Less plastic? Fantastic
We've warred on straws. But what about the lids and cups? With recycling in crisis and nowhere left to hide our dirty secrets, take the five minutes to drink your coffee in-house if you forgot your keep cup, and look for initiatives like Returnr, who offer a reusable takeaway container service.
36. Bitter spritz
Global trends indicate a summer of sophisticated bitter spritz ahead. Even better, local spirit producers are ready with all-Aussie alternatives to imports. Like Italy's sweet-bitter herbal amaros? Try Maidenii's Nocturne Vin Amer infused with wormwood, muntries and desert lime or Applewood's Red Okar, which conquers Campari.
37. Let's eat the problem
Love meat but don't want to trash the landscape? This year artist Kirsha Kaechele's book Eat the Problem reminded us that feral species could be a delicious food source. Consider it: delicious long-spined sea urchins are bulldozing Tasmania's reefs and we cannot eat enough of them. The same goes for introduced sambar deer and wild boar, whose out-of-control populations are trampling fragile ecosystems. Next steps? Processing plants are key. Support Jonas Widjaja's Fair Game Wild Venison, which prepares wild deer for restaurants, and hit up Uni Boom Boom in Melbourne for that sweet Tasmanian urchin roe.
38. No more wine wars
Hearing people moan about how much they hate natural wine is almost as boring as people moaning about why they love it. Can we just all agree to love good wine of all colours, creeds and time on skin?
39. Less finger lime
It is fantastic that a native ingredient has caught on like wildfire, but please let's not make finger lime the cracked black pepper of 2019, sprayed with abandon on every degustation dish.
40. Treat old like gold
It means a lot for a restaurant to mark its 10th anniversary, let alone its 25th. So let's sing a big happy birthday to Rose Bay's Catalina (25 years old); Sydney's Aria (20); Melbourne's Flower Drum (44); France-Soir, the Frenchiest French bistro in the southern hemisphere (33); Sydney's Golden Century (30), and dear Beppi's (63 years young). Now, make a booking, 'cos if we don't use 'em, we might lose 'em.
The Good Food Guide's third annual national edition, with hats awarded across Australia, was launched on September 30 with our presenting partners Vittoria Coffee and Citi. The Good Food Guide 2020 is on sale now in newsagencies and bookstores, and at thestore.com.au/gfg20, $29.99 with free shipping.