Why having a signature dish still matters to restaurants

Myffy Rigby
Muffaletta sandwich at A1 Canteen in Chippendale, Sydney.
Muffaletta sandwich at A1 Canteen in Chippendale, Sydney. Photo: Christopher Pearce

Last April, Quay took their famous snow egg off the menu. A bold move for a three hat restaurant that's been capitalising on that signature dessert since 2009. In 2010, chef Peter Gilmore's orb of vanilla ice cream and poached meringue coated in a toffee crisp and bedded on a seasonal fruit granita, made its debut on national television. 

Four million viewers tuned into the MasterChef finale to watch contestants try their hand at this notoriously difficult-to-make dessert and since then they sold more than 500,000. Imagine the poor bookings receptionist wrangling the thousands of calls around whether or not it could be ordered without the rest of the menu (no) or whether it could be taken away (certainly not). When Gilmore decided to take the snow egg off the menu after a decade, he pretty much broke the internet.   

So. Is a signature dish is a help or a hindrance when it comes to running a successful restaurant business? Good Food senior critic and Good Food Guide panel member Terry Durack says signature dishes will never die because restaurants need them as part of their brand. "They give their identity a consistent visual and a consistent voice. They stand for something."

Tetsuya's legendary confit ocean trout.
Tetsuya's legendary confit ocean trout.  

He also argues that the dish gives a diner something to come back for - it becomes a status symbol, something you want to show your friends, colleagues, loved ones. So perhaps, in a way, it's a restaurant's responsibility to keep those popular dishes on the menu. They become a part of a larger conversation, more than a sum of the restaurant's parts and a chef's ego. 

A waiter commented during a recent visit to two-hat restaurant Tetsuya's, that there had been a public outcry when they'd attempted to take the famous confit ocean trout, which has been on the menu at his Kent Street address since 1992, off the carte. The gently poached lobe of Petuna ocean trout with its konbu crust lolling over matchsticks of green apple might well be the most photographed trout dish in Australia - possibly the world. 

Whether it's a delicate dessert, a perfectly poached piece of fish, or a showstopping piece of meat, there's the impression chefs do feel a little hoist by their own batard. Clayton Wells, head chef of Automata and A1 Canteen never expected his version of a muffaletta - a party of cured meats, cheeses and pickles - to be quite the runaway success it became.  "I didn't think everyone would come and sit down here and be eating a sandwich," says Wells. "Which is not bad either. But it's quite a big thing." To this day, that sandwich is plastered all over Instagram. An affordable status symbol for the upwardly mobile.              

Can you run a restaurant in 2019 without a big deal piece of protein? Without that show stopping steak, that duck for two, the luxury rare breed pork chop? A show stopping sandwich?

What about running a restaurant in 2019 without a big deal piece of protein? Without that show stopping steak, that duck for two, the luxury rare breed pork chop? "I think you could run it," says Lennox Hastie, head chef of Surry Hills wood-fired restaurant, Firedoor, "I don't necessarily think you can start it." 

His 200-day-aged $200 rib eye steak has become a thing of legend in Aussie dining circles. And while the expectation around that is weighty, without it he may not also be able to sell some of the other dishes that excite him. It's a little like the blockbuster film that bankrolls a director's passion projects. "Chefs like to complain about having a signature dish they can't take off their menu," says Durack, "but they don't mean it. It's money in the bank." 

The finalists for New Restaurant Of The Year are…

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The most exciting opening in the past 12 months, this restaurant sets the eating agenda and starts conversations. Represents everything that's fresh, hot and interesting about dining

Alberto's Lounge
Think of this new Italian restaurant on the old Berta site as the kissing cousin of inner city French restaurant Hubert. Expect an eclectic and broad reaching wine list to go with a menu that's as unapologetic as it is delicious.17-19 Alberta Street, Surry Hills. albertoslounge.com

ARC Dining 
Brisbane-born young gun Alanna Sapwell moved back to the sunshine state from Sydney's Saint Peter in 2019 to take on this light, airy riverside pavilion and adjacent wine bar, and she's nailing it with relaxed, confident small dishes that display great clarity of flavour. Howard Smith Wharves; 5 Boundary Street, Brisbane. 

Sydney's Firedoor, built on a uncompromising love of smoke, fire, wood and coals.
Sydney's Firedoor, built on a uncompromising love of smoke, fire, wood and coals. Photo: Nikki To

Di Stasio Citta
The sequel to Ronnie Di Stasio's spaghetti-slinging, barolo-pouring St Kilda landmark has landed, and true to the nature of its art-loving provocateur owner, it's going to push buttons you didn't know you had. 45 Spring Street, Melbourne. 

Joy  
Having cooked with heavyweights (Urbane, Sepia, Automata), Tim and Sarah Scott decided to do their own thing. And we mean everything: they pour drinks, clear plates and cook and serve five-and-eight course Japanese-influenced menus, before presenting an entirely reasonable bill at their ten seat restaurant. "Bakery Lane", Shop 7, 694 Ann Street, Fortitude Valley. 

Pilot
Co-owners Dash Rumble and Ross McQuinn guide their customers with easy wit and a tight drinks list. A bottle of Beaujolais gives wings to the signature roast chook - crisp of skin, stuffed with mushrooms and served with steamed bread for the making of outstanding sandwiches. 1 Wakefield Gardens, Ainslie. www.pilotrestaurant.com

Quay's impossible snow egg.
Quay's impossible snow egg. Photo: Nikki To

The Good Food Guide's third annual national edition, with hats awarded across Australia, will be launched on September 30 with our presenting partners Vittoria Coffee and Citi. The Good Food Guide 2020 will be on sale from October 1 in newsagencies and bookstores, and is also available to pre-order at thestore.com.au/gfg20, $29.99 with free shipping.