Sydneysiders who are still deciding which restaurant to book when the city emerges from lockdown best hurry, as many high-profile venues are rapidly filling their reservations lists through to the end of the year.
Coogee Pavilion fine-diner Mimi's has midweek tables left, but weekend lunch spots are booked out until Christmas. Meanwhile, the Mediterranean-channeling Totti's in Bondi has a few Monday and Tuesday tables available, but good luck scoring a Sunday courtyard seat before January.
The easing of COVID-19 restrictions to allow in-restaurant dining from October 11 couldn't have come at a better time, with the warmer weather encouraging people to eat outside and by the water.
Group tables are proving especially hard to come by on weekends with very few Saturday lunch slots for four guests left at Bondi's Icebergs Dining Room and Bar over the next three months. Pilu at Freshwater and Mosman's Ormeggio at The Spit are also booked for many group sittings on weekends through to December.
"For most of our sites, even though they're on the water and ideal for tourists, the cornerstone of the business is locals," says Bill Drakopoulos who counts Ormeggio, Ripples Milsons Point and The Fenwick in Balmain as part of his Sydney Restaurant Group portfolio.
"I have been doing this for 40 years and sharing with friends is the way to dine. Order a few dishes, engage, have fun. Bring on the 11th!"
Chef and restaurateur Matt Moran's harbourside fine-diner Aria is coming back in full force with a new executive chef after the departure of kitchen head Joel Bickford was announced in August.
"We are extremely fortunate to have so much to talk about regarding our return to dining, including our new executive chef Tom Gorringe's debut menu," says Moran, adding that Aria has also almost booked out all of its weekend sittings for the rest of the year.
"After months of being locked away, we're all craving experiences and connection now more than ever. We feel very lucky for our customers who have supported us for over the past 20 years"
Stepping into the role of executive chef at a two-hatted restaurant coming out of lockdown would be daunting to some, but Gorringe has taken it all in his stride.
"The creative juices have really started to flow since being in the Aria kitchen," he says. "It's a different feeling altogether, being in that space."
One of the challenges for hospitality venues has been reconnecting with suppliers and producers, some of whom may have been inactive for months, and finding the right ingredients to put a chef's vision on the plate.
"I recently visited the local markets to have conversations with growers, farmers and providers to sample produce and understand what's going to be available when we reopen," says Gorringe.
"It's been a really tough time for restaurant suppliers, so it's a good feeling to know that we can support them again. Among the produce we're excited to showcase at Aria is white asparagus, kangaroo, mulberries, coral trout, Murray cod, eggplant and beautiful mangoes."
Finding staff is the biggest challenge for many restaurants reopening, with some hospitality workers taking on new jobs during lockdown.
Other staff do not feel comfortable returning to work just yet, while many temporary visa holders – who made up a significant part of Sydney's hospitality workforce – left Australia when the pandemic hit last year.
Luke Kirby, general manager of The Botanist in Kirribilli, says he made sure to stay engaged with staff through lockdown so the business didn't face difficulties when it came time to rehire.
"We are quite lucky at The Botanist because we have a young, local team and it's a very attractive place to work," he says. "The communication on a group level has been great and we have been very active with our staff over lockdown."
However, Kirby says he knows of other restaurants struggling to find the staff to reopen. When the busy Christmas period arrives, he predicts it will be even more difficult for hospitality venues to hire enough workers.
"It is absolutely hard to get staff at the moment," he says. "Before COVID, you could put a job ad out and get 20 applicants by the end of the day. Now we would be lucky to get one or two."
Complying with COVID regulations is a new challenge for restaurants who must adhere to government rules of only allowing fully-vaccinated patrons into their venues.
It is unlikely the vaccination requirement will affect restaurants being able to fill their tables, with more diners choosing where they dine-out based on the safety and enforcement of COVID regulations.
A recent survey commissioned by fintech company Zeller found that COVID-safety and hygiene policies to be the most important factor when deciding where to eat for 83 per cent of Australian diners.
74 per cent of diners said they would be happy to show proof of their vaccination as a dining requirement.
The vast majority of Sydney's hospitality industry is more than happy to satisfy COVID-safe requirements in order to welcome guests again.
David Sude, general manager of the CBD's QT hotel which houses Gowings Bar and Grill, says that "we have a responsibility to our guests and team to keep everyone in our restaurant and bar safe – that will always take precedence".
The New York-style brasserie has reinvented crowd favorites such as steak diane over lockdown.
"The whole dining experience from the first cocktail to the last drink has been invigorated over the past few months," says Sude. "The news of reopening from October 11 was an absolute joy for our team. We've spent the week reconnecting with suppliers, supporters and our community."
Merivale executive chef Jordan Toft, who leads the kitchen at Mimi's and Bert's in Newport, says being able to once again create and serve food that leaves an impression on guests is the most exciting part about coming out of lockdown.
"It's that classic cliche – love what you do and you don't work a day in your life," he says.
"Obviously with plans coming forward a week, it's great to open quicker, but … there are also more than a few working parts to get everyone back on board and a few complexities to begin work again.
"Everyone has gone through an interesting time and I'm excited to reopen our doors … the reason I got into food in the first place is because of the vibrancy it adds to a city."
More restaurants open for bookings post-lockdown
Sure, a weekend table at Totti's might be near impossible to score, but Sydney has no shortage of other restaurants ready to help you celebrate the end of lockdown in style.
Bathers' Pavilion 4 The Esplanade, Balmoral
Glitzy degustation, wood-roasted chook or beef-shin green curry? Bathers' fine-dining restaurant and bistro are both back, plus Betel Leaf Thai restaurant on the terrace. Open for oysters and beach views October 11. batherspavilion.com.au
Bennelong Bennelong Point, Sydney
Reservations for the Opera House fine-diner opened on Friday and there are still plenty of choice sittings available at the time of writing. Punters keen for a quick Krug and sausage roll can also visit the bar without booking. Open for world-class pavlova and pikelets from October 21. bennelong.com.au
Big Poppa's 96 Oxford Street, Darlinghurst
The kitchen is open till 2:30am, seven days a week, but reservations finish at 11:30pm. The secret is to snag a table around midnight for the hip hop-loving bar and restaurant. Open for cacio e pepe and champagne from October 11. bigpoppa.com.au
CicciaBella Bondi and Parramatta
Saturday lunch at Icebergs is well booked out for the next few weeks, but Maurice Terzini's more casual osterias have their weekend corkscrews at the ready. Open for house-made pasta and chilled reds from October 13. cicciabella.com.au
Restaurant Hubert 15 Bligh Street, Sydney
Getting a reservation can be hard at this fully immersive French experience, but you can always try for an early or late booking, or have a drink at the bar until a table comes up. Open for steak frites and Bordeaux from October 12. restauranthubert.com
With Callan Boys.