What was a 1980s three-hat restaurant like?

Gloria Staley with the team at Fanny's Restaurant in 1984.
Gloria Staley with the team at Fanny's Restaurant in 1984.  Photo: Peter Mayo

Three hats. It's the highest accolade a restaurant can achieve in the Good Food Guide and at last Monday's Good Food Guide Awards, a record seven restaurants around Australia scored the required 18 or higher out of 20.

It is only the second national book, after The Sydney Morning Herald, Age and Brisbane Times editions of The Good Food Guide were combined last year. But it's also fair to say that a three-hat restaurant has drastically changed since the first guides were published in the heady 1980s.

Chef Paul Carmichael of three-hatted Momofuku Seiobo.
Chef Paul Carmichael of three-hatted Momofuku Seiobo.  Photo: Edwina Pickles

Four restaurants in and around Melbourne bagged the gong in the inaugural 1980 Age Good Food Guide, edited by Claude Forell. Leo Schofield's Sydney Morning Herald edition, which followed in 1984, had two. They were all French fine diners swathed in linen.

A lot has changed in Australian dining, and not all for the better. There used to be a disco restaurant section in those books. And do any current restaurant names live up to Fairy Stork, Mother Tucker's or Fernando's Tablao Flamenco?

At the pointy end of dining, however, Australia has come a long way in developing an accent all its own.

Blyth and Gloria Staley at Fanny's in 1979.
Blyth and Gloria Staley at Fanny's in 1979.  Photo: Fairfax Media

Not to knock the original three hatters. There are few greater regrets for serious diners than knowing they'll never be served by self-made restaurant queen Gloria Staley at Melbourne icon Fanny's. Staley ruled in an era when it was the proprietors - not the chefs - who were celebrities. Not a chef herself, she famously devised the menus. In her obituary, Forell attributed Fanny's success to Staley's grit. "She was an inspired impresario with a flair for design, a sense of style, an antenna for contemporary trends and an intuitive feeling for exquisite food."

Other regrets: not getting to eat in the beautiful bushland of Berowra Waters Inn under the inimitable Gay Bilson. Specifically in the era before random breath testing took hold.

The three-hat menus of those early editions were thematically aligned: classic French to the core, heavy on the seafood and buckets of cream.

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At Melbourne's Two Faces it was "sweetbreads with morels, Bocuse-style scallops, prepared with white wine, hollandaise sauce and truffles." Chef Peter Doyle's lobster and mousseline of fish at Sydney's Reflections scored him three hats, and at Jean Jacques it was "the pâté of John Dory, prawns and olives with a cream sauce; the yabby tails with a mousseline sauce and the snapper cutlet with a peppercorn sauce - a joy."

Melbourne's La Madrague also got a shout out for offering of Wednesdays "cuisine minceur". Translation: slimming cuisine. Essentially, diet versions of the fatty French originals.

Snap to now and Momofuku is slinging luxe Caribbean under chef Paul Carmichael. Crisp cassava crackers are spread with a pepper butter sauce sandwiching rich, silky lobes of cooling uni. Marron, dispatched to order, are grilled and smothered in chilli paste then served with fluffy coconut buns.

The top restaurateurs from 1984 check out the first ever Good Food Guide.
The top restaurateurs from 1984 check out the first ever Good Food Guide.  Photo: Fairfax media

At Attica in Ripponlea, Ben Shewry likes to use Australian ingredients and culture as the basis for his dishes, so there's a kitsch Vegemite scroll made with black garlic and miso, and a dessert of camel milk sorbet made to order with liquid nitrogen. Before you get it, you're marched out to the courtyard where a barbecue is grilling possum sausage sangas for a palate cleanser.

Bread isn't just bread anymore either. At Restaurant Orana (Restaurant of the Year) potato damper, skewered on baby eucalyptus leaves is cooked directly against hot coals at your table, to be dipped into whipped roast lamb fat. Quay delivers crumpets in bespoke toasters to your table, to be swiped in fresh truffled butter.

There's technique and gadgetry, but these aren't the star as they sometimes were during the molecular-driven early thousands. Top Australian produce is the common thread (access to, and understanding of which has greatly increased in the last four decades) and while it might be manipulated as per Dan Hunter of Brae's oysters-turned-ice-cream, served in shell with a seaweed dust, the raw ingredient always shines through.

Whipped emu egg at three-hatted Attica in Melbourne.
Whipped emu egg at three-hatted Attica in Melbourne. Photo: Supplied

One niggling aspect of 2018 fine dining that arises as a now-versus-then issue is cost. And it's expensive to eat at the top tier, no question. But a fact check of the 1980 average income of $245 a week computes to roughly nine percent of the cost of eating at Fanny's (sans drinks), the most expensive restaurant in the Guide then at $42 for two. But that was three courses. Attica is the most expensive now, at $295 and 18 percent of the current weekly income, but it is a many hour, multi-course ride. Meanwhile, at newly three-hatted Sixpenny in Sydney, the $185 price tag accounts for 11 percent of Australia's average wage.

Three hats today is more than linen and perfecting classic technique. It's the experience of walking through Dan Hunter's gardens; the educational mission of Jock Zonfrillo with the Orana Foundation (a body cataloguing all native foods); the bareback tables and grit of tiny, clever Sixpenny. More delicious? You decide. More rounded? You bet.

The new Good Food Guide 2019 is on sale in newsagencies and bookstores or order via thestore.com.au/gfg19 (delivery included), RRP $29.99.