Alfresco dining will be a boon for some Melbourne restaurants, but not everyone will reap rewards

Carlo Grossi, the owner of Grossi Florentino, says alfresco dining as a restaurant's sole revenue stream is not viable.
Carlo Grossi, the owner of Grossi Florentino, says alfresco dining as a restaurant's sole revenue stream is not viable. Photo: Supplied

An outdoor dining package has been announced for Melbourne, with the Victorian government and City of Melbourne jointly pledging $100 million in funding, in addition to the $3 billion business rescue support announced on Sunday.

CBD restaurants and bars will be able to apply for funding for outdoor seating, and screens to set up their operations on footpaths and some streets (which will be closed).

The program is modelled on New York City's Open Restaurants program, in which about 10,000 of the city's restaurants took part.

Lyndal Spencer, Simon Blacher and Stephen Ngo of Firebird restaurant.
Lyndal Spencer, Simon Blacher and Stephen Ngo of Firebird restaurant. Photo: Karina Patten

The idea of a summer of alfresco dining has great appeal for diners, and will hopefully attract people to the CBD even if they are not returning to city-based offices.

But the plan has drawn mixed reactions from the hospitality industry.

Simon Blacher owns multiple Prahran and Windsor restaurants including Neptune and Firebird, and says they will maximise any opportunity, but "some people have more footpath than others".

Caterina Borsato of Caterina's Cucina says she doesn't have suitable outdoor space to take advantage of the rescue package.
Caterina Borsato of Caterina's Cucina says she doesn't have suitable outdoor space to take advantage of the rescue package.  Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen

Neptune, which has a beauty parlour on one side and nothing on the other, may be able to take up more pavement, while Tokyo Tina would only have meaningful space if restaurants are allowed to use car parking spaces in the road.

The outdoor plan leaves some completely in the cold. Caterina's Cucina is in a Queen Street basement, down two flights of steps. Owner Caterina Borsato says that outside is a wind tunnel, and a tree has made the pavement uneven. "We would need to shut off Queen Street." She says extra staff would also be needed to manage outdoor tables.

The Grossi stable of restaurants on Bourke Street already offers outdoor dining, and Carlo Grossi says the idea is great "in the sense of reactivating our city streets", but as a restaurant's sole revenue stream it's not viable in Melbourne.

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Grossi also contests its positive financial impact in New York City. "Talking to many over there, it has not supplemented the loss of income that indoor dining supplies as their bread-and-butter turnover."

As part of its plan for the easing of COVID-19 restrictions, the state government announced that restaurants would be able to open for outdoor dining once the fortnightly average of new cases was five a day or fewer.

Restaurants cannot open for indoor dining until there are no new cases for a fortnight or more, something most in the industry think is too high a bar for them to hurdle.

Publican Iain Ling of the Lincoln Hotel says it's positive that the government is looking at some problems in the industry but it makes no sense to have enormous, indoor spaces that will sit empty. "To fire up the kitchen for maybe 10 to 20 people who can fit outside is impractical."

Melbourne's weather is also a major concern. "No umbrellas can stop our rain when it comes down," says Ling. "Do you send all your staff home when people don't show up?"

Full details  about the plan are yet to be unveiled, but Ling says "maintaining JobKeeper at its current rate is the main issue that needs to be addressed".

Mallory Wall, who, with Ronnie Di Stasio, owns Di Stasio Citta in Melbourne's Spring Street, says while the restaurants will do whatever they can to embrace outdoor dining, what they need most is to be treated like other industries, including beauticians and hairdressers, that are able to open much earlier under the government's plan.

"Restaurants adhere to strict health and safety guidelines every single day we operate and we are more than capable of perfecting a COVID-safe plan for opening indoors and outdoors and keeping our customers safe," Wall says.

"Outdoor dining sounds great, but logistically and practically it does not really help us. We need a realistic plan to properly open."

Con Christopoulos, whose venues include the European, the Melbourne Supper Club, Spring Street Grocer and Angel Music Bar, says he's trained himself not to get worked up about announcements until he has seen the fine print. But his advice for the local and state governments is to let hospitality be creative in finding solutions.

"Our industry has thrived on individual creativity. Get out of our way and trust us. We've proven we can follow the rules, that we care about our staff and we care about our customers.

"It's not their doing that we're the most liveable city in the world."