The regular customers who are the lifeblood of Australia's restaurants

'The usual, sir? Or would you care to try the truffle special?'
'The usual, sir? Or would you care to try the truffle special?' Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen

Leonardo DiCaprio has dined at Sydney's Porteno three times. Anthony Bourdain, Mike Patton, Hugh Jackman – they've all been there, too. And while the bragging rights (and irregular heart rates) that come with these visits can be great fun, there's a group of diners who are just as important as these big-name stars. "The people who come in week in, week out, they're our celebrities," says Sarah Doyle, who works at the restaurant.

Nik Stakes from Melbourne's Tipo 00 agrees: "It is the regulars that really are the reason you, as a restaurant, exist. It's the people that discovered you early and have continued to support you that really make or break a restaurant and it's their recommendations that [affect] your business way more than any Instagram influencer."

Lennox Hastie of Firedoor alerts his regulars to extra-special specials.
Lennox Hastie of Firedoor alerts his regulars to extra-special specials. Photo: Christopher Pearce

So at Sydney's Firedoor, when Lennox Hastie orders in something special (from chestnut-fed beef, which has a limited season, to shimonita onions, which take an exceptionally long time to grow), he'll alert his repeat diners – or even make a special request to suppliers on their behalf. It's one of many ways chefs and restaurateurs look after the diners who are the lifeblood of their establishments.

Victor Liong, Lee Ho Fook

When Victor Liong first opened Lee Ho Fook in Melbourne's Collingwood, there was a "great couple who lived around the corner – Adam and Sally", he says.

You feel a hole when they're not there, when they go away.

Mo Wyse, Smith & Daughters

"They used to party with us all the time. They'd have dinner and then they'd order everybody bottles of wine and then we'd do a lock-in." Staff would even roll Adam cigarettes and stick him out the back, so he could puff away between dishes. "There was one service where we let him pick all the songs and he put on Willie Nelson the whole night and drove everyone crazy … It was hilarious."

There was also the wine merchant who lived behind the restaurant.

"He'd get drunk and we'd let him out the back door and he'd walk straight into his house," says Liong. Or he'd knock on the back door and Lee Ho Fook would do takeaway for him.

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In the restaurant's current central business district location, the setting might be "a little bit more serious", but the devotion is still strong.

There's a group that Liong calls The Dan Dan Mafia: three bankers who constantly order dan dan noodles. Liong starts cooking the dish as soon as he sees them. Once, one banker was so hungover, he actually ordered two serves. The chef gave him one for free: "the first one's for the hangover, the second one's for you."

Liong says having regulars is like how "artists have fans". He knows what they like – the fried eggplant, scallops and steamed fish – and that he can never take those items off the menu. He's mindful to keep prices low to make repeat visits possible, too.

Naomi Hart is back on the floor at Hartsyard in Enmore.
Naomi Hart is back on the floor at Hartsyard in Enmore. Photo: Wolter Peeters

"We try to make everyone the most cared for. [But] in my mind, I would rather look after the guys who come in and have dan dan noodles three times a week than, say, John Travolta. He's just another person and let's face it, he'll never come back again," he says. The Dan Dan Mafia, though? "They're awesome, I love them so much."   

Naomi Hart, Hartsyard

When Naomi Hart worked in Los Angeles, the staff would put through notes about diners that said PITA – "pain in the ass".

Sarah Doyle of Porteno.
Sarah Doyle of Porteno. Photo: Katherine Griffiths

"The chef would go through and he'd be like PITA, PITA, PITA, PITA, PITA. I was like oh, that's like 90 per cent [of everyone]."

When she moved back to Sydney to open Hartsyard with American husband Gregory Llewellyn in 2012, she had a completely different experience. They deliberately picked Newtown, a locationthat they had a good feeling about. Postcode 2042 reciprocated, with crowds and a loyal following. Cut to six years later, and Hart has returned to the restaurant floor, full-time, for the first time since having three kids "and it's the same regulars from when we opened". There's Erin and Maz who have a new dog; Dave, who ended up writing the foreword to their cookbook, Fried Chicken and Friends, and Jenny, who cried the first time she visited Hartsyard, because Llewellyn was so nice to her.

This is a pattern: the restaurant is particularly friendly to diners. I once saw a table treated so well, I assumed the patrons were undercover rock stars. It turns out they were "only" regulars. Llewelyn will often duck out of the kitchen to say hi to guests and sometimes send out new dishes for feedback. Staff might also bring over a new wine they've added to the list and ask for an opinion.

Inside Andrew McConnell's Cutler & Co.
Inside Andrew McConnell's Cutler & Co. Photo: Earl Carter

Hart points out that repeat customers are "important because they value you as much as you are valuing them", she says. "They're the people on your quiet Tuesdays and Wednesdays that are keeping you afloat."

There's another key way Hartsyard has maintained its clientele: by having long-running staff members that have stuck around. "It's very hard to cultivate regulars if your crew changes all the time."

Chris Handel, the Builders Arms Hotel, Cumulus Inc., Cutler & Co, Supernormal

Otto staff often deliver pasta to a regular's boat.
Otto staff often deliver pasta to a regular's boat. Photo: Christopher Pearce

Chris Handel has witnessed many examples of Melbourne's unshakeable commitment to Andrew McConnell's establishments. There are the schoolkids who've dutifully joined their parents at Cumulus Inc., only to later reach wine-drinking age and become Cumulus lifers themselves. There's the couple who asked if a pop-up teahouse at Supernormal could be the site of their wedding (the answer was "yes").

And let's not forget George, a regular at the Builders Arms Hotel. "He'd always order a New York strip sirloin steak, which was on the menu at the time, but he'd always order it with a fried egg on top," says Handel. He ended up requesting it so often, that the venue put his version on the menu and called it The George.

"At The Builders Arms, there are people who have been drinking the same thing there since we opened five years ago," says Handel.

Mo Wyse & Shannon Martinez of Smith and Daughters.
Mo Wyse & Shannon Martinez of Smith and Daughters. Photo: Eddie Jim

You don't have to spend $400 a head at Cutler & Co to receive the thoughtful service that makes Andrew McConnell's venues consistently great. Familiar faces will come in daily for their $3.50 coffee at Cumulus Inc. or ramen fix at Supernormal.

"Our philosophy has always been, if it can be done, we will do it," says Handel. It means, for instance, offering half-serves of dishes and half-glasses of wine to solo diners – so no one has a lesser experience.

And sometimes that above-and-beyond response comes from the patrons themselves. At Cumulus Inc., there's one art-world regular who gets along so well with the staff that when any Cumulus employee travels to New York, they'll hang out with this diner's daughter – who happily shows them around town. "Those relationships are so cool and so lovely to have," says Handel.

Graham Ackling, Otto

Nearly a decade ago – long before "plant-based" became a buzzword – Otto created a full vegan menu for a regular diner. And the guest who inspired it? She turns up at the Sydney wharfside restaurant every fortnight to try the latest version. Another frequent patron visits Otto on his boat. "We happily bring him down a bowl of pasta and glass of wine to enjoy on the deck," says manager Graham Ackling.

The restaurant makes good use of intel to ensure guests feel important: sending birthday cards to regular clients, or surprising them with cake or bubbles on a special occasion. And when it comes to VIP treatment, Otto takes it to another level.

"We have wine cellars for our regulars … which means we are able to order in rare and expensive wines for them. We don't put these on the menu and reserve them for when these regulars come in," says Ackling. "We have cooked at their homes for special events or delivered food to their homes – a lot of them live on the wharf."  

Mo Wyse, Smith & Daughters and Smith & Deli

It's true, fans of Melbourne's Smith & Deli are willing to wait 90 minutes for their favourite sandwich. And sometimes, because the queue snakes right onto the road, they'll consider standing in the way of an oncoming car to get it. (Employees frequently talk people out of doing this – no order is worth the injuries.) But that's how devoted people are when it comes to the vegan deli and its sister restaurant, Smith & Daughters.

Their regulars include interstate visitors who turn up with freezer bags and take-home containers to smuggle food onto the plane home.

"We have this one customer … who buys these extra treats so that when she's on the plane, it's like her secret vegan mission, she'll share [them] with people sitting next to her."

There are even touring bands who'll stock up appropriately for long-haul trips to Europe or America.

You can credit co-owner and chef Shannon Martinez for being a key reason for the fandom. "She literally listens to what the customers want – what they've been missing, their grandma's favourite dish," says Wyse. So if someone requests a plant-based version of tuna mornay for the deli, Martinez will make it – even if she isn't the biggest fan of the original dish herself.

This close attention to what diners want is probably why Smith & Deli sells 1000 sandwiches every Saturday and Smith & Daughters serves up to 400 meals on a Tuesday (even though the restaurant only seats 86 people).  

That care extends to a regular who has had the same spot at the Smith & Daughters bar since day one – they even save a Saturday paper for her to read. "We know her coffee and food order, so she doesn't even have to think of it."

"There's something really beautiful about being part of someone's ritual and having that sense of community," says Wyse. "People walk in and say how excited they are to be there, but you're just as excited to welcome them in every single week."

And apart from some familiar details (perhaps their favourite meal, their names and what they're doing for the rest of the day), Wyse recognises that there's still a lot you don't know about a diner. Yet there's something so intimate about connecting with a regular and being a part of their lives.

"You feel a hole when they're not there, when they go away on holiday," she says.

Brent Savage, Bentley, Cirrus, Yellow, Monopole

At Brent Savage's Sydney restaurants, regulars are literally VIPs. Their order conveys their status as a frequent diner and staff keep extensive notes on each visit they make – to ensure the kitchen doesn't send repeat dishes from past experiences (unless otherwise requested).

Award-winning sommelier Nick Hildebrandt will look out for something special that his wine-geek regulars might enjoy, while a returning patron who constantly orders all the desserts on the menu will be given a new watermelon, shiso and blackberry work-in-progress to try. And the one diner who always requests Table 10 – he'll get that, too.

Often there's a personal connection: Bentley catered for the wedding of a regular couple ("then we've never seen them again because they've had babies", says Savage with a laugh) and they also cook for one diner's family every single Christmas eve. Most people would probably prefer to spend the night before Christmas another way – but such is Savage's commitment. "You have to look after those who look after you."

Sometimes patrons can get too comfortable, though: some regulars will bring in a mistress, for instance. "And then they bring in their wife the next night!"

Of course, regardless of the situation, Savage and his team always try to take care of their most familiar patrons – particularly as they have expectations. "It's super important that you don't get comfortable, let that one slide through because they come back anyway – it's important that they get 100 per cent every time."

And he's struck by how generous their frequent visitors can be – turning up to his venues with scotch for the chef or other presents for staff, for instance.

"Our regulars really view restaurants as an extension of themselves." They appreciate the intimate relationship and the feeling is reciprocated. "It's definitely a two-way street."

The national Good Food Guide 2018, in partnership with Citi and Vittoria, is available from newsagencies, bookstores and via thestore.com.au/goodfood, RRP $29.99.