Bennelong plans collapse after Stokehouse team pulls out of Opera House deal

The team behind Melbourne's Stokehouse won the tender to replace Guillaume at Bennelong.
The team behind Melbourne's Stokehouse won the tender to replace Guillaume at Bennelong. Photo: Edwina Pickles

The overhaul of one of Australia's most coveted dining venues at the Sydney Opera House is in disarray after a deal with a Melbourne-based operator collapsed.

On Tuesday afternoon the Sydney Opera House announced it had ended its relationship with restaurateurs Frank van Haandel and his wife, Sharon, who were to bring their Stokehouse brand from St Kilda and Stokehouse Q in Brisbane to the landmark building.

Opera House chief executive Louise Herron said the final decision was only made by the Opera House Trust on Tuesday.

She said all options would now be explored for the Bennelong space, empty since New Year's Eve when Guillaume Brahimi ended his 10-year tenure.

He controversially declined to bid for the new tender, declaring his style of fine dining was unsuited to demands for a seven-day operation.

When asked whether a pop-up restaurant could be a possibility, Ms Herron said ''that all options would be considered''.

Sharon and Frank van Haandel will now focus on rebuilding their Melbourne restaurant.
Sharon and Frank van Haandel will now focus on rebuilding their Melbourne restaurant. Photo: Tamara Dean

Asked if the previous tender could be revisited, she repeated the line again. ''I sound like a politician. I'm sorry but the trust believes that it is better to take a considered approach for such a valuable asset. I would say within the next three months we would have formed the view of what to do.''

Last November it was more positive. Trust chairman John Symond and Ms Herron flanked the Melbourne couple and executive chef Anthony Musarra in front of the Opera House sails under a blue sky.

A new mantra of a more affordable and inclusive dining experience was unveiled. It was supposed to be open seven days a week for lunch and dinner, and for breakfast at weekends. A big shift from Guillaume at Bennelong, which closed on Sundays and Mondays, did not serve breakfast, offered lunch only twice a week, and was often booked for private functions.


Stokehouse at Bennelong was due to open in May. But then the Van Haandel Group's flagship Melbourne restaurant was gutted by fire on January 17.

In February Fairfax Media, through the Short Black column, broke news of problems with the Sydney venture after the blaze.

On Tuesday a short story appeared in the News Limited press suggesting the Van Haandel Group was seeking to delay its opening until the New Year. In the morning a spokeswoman for the group said the story was correct, adding that ''nothing has been confirmed yet''.

By the end of lunch the Opera House Trust determined it was over. Ms Herron said the trust understood the Van Haandel Group's priority was to re-establish its Melbourne business.

No rental demands or penalties would be imposed for the premature end of the 10-year lease, she said. ''We have worked with Frank and his team for many months. It has been a close working relationship and we part as friends. We remain great admirers and wish them every success in the future.''

Frank van Haandel said the group was devastated the Bennelong project would not go ahead.

Now the Opera House has a void and empty coffers to fill.

It has been suggested the trust is seeking a base rent of $700,000 to $900,000 a year as well as 5 to 8 per cent of turnover.

Ms Herron said the Trust had determined there would be no retreat from its decision to bring this venue to life, day and night, seven days a week.

One of the tender finalists, John Fink, said the Fink Group would be reluctant to resubmit for another tender, saying potential partners had moved onto other projects.