Suburban restaurants that kept their neighbourhoods fed during lockdown are now reaping the benefits, finding that diners are still doing a lot of their eating out within five kilometres of home.
Cinzia Buono opened Buono Italian restaurant in Parkdale during the long second lockdown of 2020. "We are so lucky to be in the suburbs," she says of her bayside pocket. "The rent is about one-third of what it would be in the city or Chapel Street - it gave us some space to breathe in our first year."
As soon as the restaurant opened – offering takeaway only – the local community rallied around.
"Here in Parkdale, you feel you are part of the family," says Buono. "People kept coming in and asking if we were OK. Some customers even brought us homemade marmalade and butter chicken. I've never experienced it in any other restaurant."
The lower rent means Buono can offer her diners a better experience, keeping wine prices lower, buying better produce and employing an extra person in the kitchen.
"We are absolutely loving it," she says. "People will still go to the city for some special outings but they don't really need to travel for quality dining anymore."
Opening in the outer suburbs was a no-brainer for Catherine Chauchat, co-owner of La Pinta tapas bar in Reservoir which launched last spring.
"My old customers in Fitzroy are now in Reservoir," she says. "The city is left for the big players with big cashflow and big investment."
Chauchat believes the next move will be further out again. "I would say this is just the beginning of branching out – the next wave will be to the country, with people wanting to integrate nature with work.
"It's the great resignation. We are entering the age of human capital and financial capital is getting a little bit of a dint. I think it's a fantastic movement, a good thing that came out of COVID. I feel like I'm on that pathway."
Meanwhile, Jung Eun Chae has moved her six-seat apartment restaurant from Brunswick to Cockatoo, partly to service the Dandenong Ranges community, but mostly to offer an escape for inner-city diners.
"This is a good time for outer suburban restaurants," she says. "I think more people are willing to travel fair distances to experience unique dining experiences, especially after three months of lockdown. I hope my customers will come out here to unplug, unwind and enjoy delicious, healthy food."
A semi-rural site means Chae can do more growing, cooking and creating. "I have always wanted a large space where I can grow my own produce and ferment traditional Korean condiments," she says. "I have a big space here to make and store my products."
Jon Ford at Teddy Picker pizza restaurant in Werribee believes he's part of a precinct renewal that includes new wine bars and a pub renovation, prompting residents to feel a sense of pride in their suburb.
"We are creating a food hub that means people can bar hop and have a high quality, urban experience in a suburb that has sometimes had a bit of a stigma about it," he says.
"A large part of why I wanted to do this business was to give people options in the area so they don't need to travel to the city or even down to Geelong."
Teddy Picker has a large back deck overlooking the Werribee River. "It's something people always talk about," says Ford. "When you're out there you could be anywhere – the Murray, way out in the country – and it's a big drawcard.
"People are still cautious about travelling and confined spaces so I think it's going to really benefit local businesses. I am extremely happy to be here."
Five new restaurants rocking the suburbs in The Good Food Guide 2022
Roughly translated from Italian, the name means "food coma" and it's an accurate description. Carbs are the main event at the olive, timber and terrazzo pasta bar. See the squid ink spaghetti with clams and salty cured roe, but also paccheri – wide tubes named for the way they slap – soaked in ragu, and strozzapreti, also known as "priest stranglers", mingling with carbonara fixings. 501 Highett Road, Highett, 03 9191 4566, abbioccohighett.com.
Buono Restaurant & Bar
This stripped-back spot opened in 2020 and quickly won the heart of its bayside community, dangling dreams of Italy in the form of excellent food and accessible European wines in a simple setting. 198 Como Parade West, Parkdale, 03 8510 5246, buonoparkdale.com.au.
Chef Jung Eun Chae gained renown for being Melbourne's smallest restaurant when she launched a fine diner in her Brunswick apartment kitchen in late 2020. Now she's moved to a new home in the Dandenong Ranges, but still offers intimate six-course menus for just six diners per sitting, four times a week. Silky rice and pumpkin porridge is sweetened by pear enzyme, while a restorative beef rib soup is seasoned with a sea salt derivative that takes four years to make. Unparalleled and vital. 33 Mountain Road, Cockatoo, chae.com.au.
Comma Food & Wine
The kind of local you want everywhere: pretty velvet booths up the front for a special occasion dinner, freestanding bar stools for Sunday sessions with live gigs, and a sprawling beer garden for the thousands of dogs and kids acquired in lockdown. This meets chef Matt Woodhouse's menu of equal flex: perhaps crudite with dukkah-flecked hummus, or crisp chicken ribs lifted with a vinegary sting of guindilla peppers and chimichurri. 2 Station Street, Moorabbin, 03 9503 4238, wearecomma.squarespace.com.
Clued-in locals know to arrive early to grab a seat at the tapas bar that's put Reservoir on the culinary map. Staff pour vermouth from a tap and deliver a rapid-fire succession of small plates, and there's no predicting the ever-changing blackboard menu. A classic tortilla de patatas and pitch-perfect burnt Basque cheesecake deserve their status as the two constants. 791 High Street, Reservoir, 0492 818 032, lapintareservoir.com.au.
The Good Food Guide 2022 magazine will be published November 30 with presenting partners Citi and Vittoria Coffee, and free with The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. Also on sale from December 7 in newsagents and supermarkets.