Can Melbourne still be the world's best food city?

The HuTong Dumpling Bar in Market Lane is a quintessential Melbourne dining experience.
The HuTong Dumpling Bar in Market Lane is a quintessential Melbourne dining experience.  Photo: Mike Baker

Dumplings in Chinatown. Pizza in Preston. Wine in Windsor. Noodles in Box Hill. Coffee everywhere. Melbourne’s dining scene has been one of the reasons it’s so good to live here, and a compelling drawcard for visitors. But that was pre-pandemic, before restaurants pulled down the shades and started clicking lids onto takeaway containers. As most reopen the doors and welcome diners again, there’s optimism tempered by caution and underpinned by innovation. What will eating in Melbourne be like now and into the future?

Rabih Yanni, who owns the Botanical Hotel in South Yarra, reopened early in lockdown to serve coffee from the front window to loyal locals striding a socially distanced Tan. “I have remained focused and positive throughout,” he says. “We’ve managed coronavirus as well as anywhere in the world. We’re in the best part of the world and in one of the world’s greatest cities.”

He acknowledges the pandemic has revealed cracks in the food scene and that many businesses will close. Industry pundits predict between 20 per cent and 30 per cent of restaurants won’t be able to weather the post-JobKeeper environment when wage subsidies disappear and rent relief ends. “It’s a brutal control-alt-delete that none of us wished for but that the industry probably needs,” says Yanni. “It will be a clean-up of those places that have opened due to low barriers of entry, all those me-too cafes serving third-wave blond-roasted acidic coffee under every new apartment block.”

Publican Rabih Yanni, owner of the Botanical Hotel in South Yarra.
Publican Rabih Yanni, owner of the Botanical Hotel in South Yarra. Photo: Simon Schluter

For those who remain, the pickings will be rich − or so the publican hopes. “Good businesses are going to skyrocket,” he says. “Diners will return to restaurants doing it right time and time again.” Doing it right means being realistic about consumer sentiment. “The value has to be there,” says Yanni. “Maybe it’s more about a $40 dinner twice a week now, rather than $70 once a week. And whatever it is, make it good. If it’s a $5 coffee, it needs to be a great coffee in a warm, intimate, welcoming environment. If it’s a $47 Scotch fillet, make it export-grade, perfectly charred and seasoned, served at the right temperature with a well-made sauce and crunchy greens. Every single element has to deliver.”

Restaurateur Jason Chang has been struggling with buyer sentiment since January. He owns Calia, a luxury dine-in food store with a modern Japanese menu and sites at Emporium in the city and Chadstone. Both stores have reopened to decent custom. On the other hand, Chang’s swank Chinese restaurant Yu Kitchen, also at Chadstone, will not be reopening. “Owning a Chinese restaurant has been very, very hard,” he says. “We were affected since January when news of the virus first came. We took a real dive and had 80 per cent cancellations overnight. Six months of massive losses will knock you over.”

Chang has experienced overt racism during this period. “It’s all about the dirty Chinese,” he says. “People look at us and think we are COVID.” He also thinks Asian food is generally devalued in the marketplace − it’s an ongoing struggle for Calia, which focuses on simple dishes made with premium ingredients. “Asian food is aligned to a perception that it’s cheap,” he says. “Customers are happy to pay $36 for tortellini but complain about paying $7 for hand-made dumplings. It makes it hard for us.” As well as communicating the value of his top-shelf ingredients − imported wagyu beef, premium tuna belly, hand-harvested sea urchin, specialty rice − Chang is looking at innovative ways to reduce wage costs.

Jason Chang's Calia restaurants in the city and Chadstone have reopened.
Jason Chang's Calia restaurants in the city and Chadstone have reopened. Photo: Simon Schluter

He’s already offering contactless ordering via QR code technology, which puts the Calia menu on customers’ phones. Next step is a $20,000 robot cat that will wheel food out to tables with accompanying feline expressions on its touchscreen ‘face’. “The Bella-Bot uses radar and sensors to go to the right table,” says Chang. “People want to be safe rather than social now. At our premium-casual level, we can make technology part of the dining experience.”

The CBD has particular challenges, with many city workers continuing to work from home, fewer overseas students and a dearth of tourists. “The CBD has taken the biggest hit,” says Kathy Reed, executive chef at tequila bar Mesa Verde and burger-focused Rooftop in Curtin House on Swanston Street. “The suburbs are mostly back and busy but lots of CBD places don’t know if or how they are coming back. Foot traffic is pretty low and it’s all a great unknown.”

Reed will open her kitchens this week but is unsure how long she’ll battle on. “Melbourne has been an extraordinary place to dine, with incredible diversity from the top end to the bottom end,” she says. “But the saturation means the poor pie is very stretched and COVID has highlighted the fact that a lot of people, a lot of businesses, are living week to week.”

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The forced break has given many chefs and restaurateurs a unique opportunity to step back from their businesses and consider how they want to move forward, if at all. “It was bad because it was people losing lives and jobs but it was also time for people to reflect and think differently,” says Atlas chef and owner Charlie Carrington.

“Coronavirus gave us time to take stock and have a crack at something new.” For Carrington that meant launching a side business called Atlas Masterclasses. Produce boxes are delivered to people at home and Carrington demonstrates recipes via video. There’s a new cuisine each week. “It’s something we always wanted to do but could never devote time to,” says Carrington, who speaks to M from the Caulfield Racecourse catering kitchen where he’s packing hundreds of ingredient packs for shipping to households across Victoria, New South Wales and the ACT.

He loves reaching a new audience. “One thing that’s blown me away is how many families buy the box and the kids make dinner for the parents,” he says. A nine-year-old girl did my brisket with slaw and made it look better than I did in the video. I wouldn’t expect the parents to bring their daughter to Atlas for dinner but now there’s a way she can have that experience and, who knows, she might become a chef one day.”

Kathy Reed says there's still a lot of unknowns about how CBD restaurants will return from COVID-19 shutdowns.
Kathy Reed says there's still a lot of unknowns about how CBD restaurants will return from COVID-19 shutdowns. Photo: Supplied

Like many restaurants, Atlas will continue their delivery stream after the restaurant opens this week. “I have really enjoyed seeing ways we can reinvent ourselves,” says Carrington.

Fiorn Lee owns Aunty Franklee, a Malaysian restaurant in Hawthorn which specialises in bak kut teh, a slow-cooked stew made with pork ribs and medicinal herbs. She’s weathered the impact of the virus by targeting customers who used to visit the restaurant to dine in but wouldn’t drive 20 kilometres for takeaway.

“I’ve opened up a channel of weekend deliveries to Wantirna, Glen Waverley and Mount Waverley,” she says. “I realised there’s a lot of Malaysians who live around there and it was good to be able to reach out to them. It’s opened up opportunities I wouldn’t have found otherwise.”

Lume in South Melbourne
Lume in South Melbourne Photo: Supplied

She’s finding that people are still wary about dining in, so she’ll retain the deliveries as a supplementary income stream. She’s also changed her operating hours to accommodate new diner behaviour. “I used to close between 3pm and 5pm but during lockdown we opened every day between noon and 8pm,” she says. “We are still doing that because I find that people working from home don’t have a routine anymore. We have people wanting to dine at 4pm, which would never have happened before.” Partly it’s a blurring of daily rhythms but Lee thinks it’s also an instinctive spacing. “People don’t come out when they think it’s going to be busy,” she says. “They are naturally spreading themselves out.”

Lume, a contemporary fine dining restaurant in South Melbourne, is also continuing with deliveries after they reopen on June 24. “Bookings are steady but it’s hard to gauge what it will be like,” says bar manager Sam Thornhill. “There’s a lot of anxiety still so if people don’t feel comfortable coming out, we still want an offering they can enjoy at home.” At the same time, he’s hoping a completely new menu concept will attract diners. “We’ve created an ecosystems menu where every dish will represent a different bioregion in Victoria,” he says.

“It’s an opportunity to celebrate local food, but it also makes sense because it’s harder to import ingredients at the moment.” The team used lockdown to get creative, foraging, learning and experimenting. “We’ve been talking to traditional owners to understand the way different ingredients would be used,” he says. The day we speak, Thornhill has been working on a cocktail with blackened bunya nut shells that he’s turning into an essence, then distilling into liquor to create an Australian version of peated whisky.

It’s exactly this kind of geeky specificity that restaurant-watchers hope will make post-COVID Melbourne an interesting and vibrant dining destination, even if you live here in the first place. “People will specialise a bit more and focus on what they do best,” says Charlie Carrington. “When people focus on something, they become really good at it so our dining scene could actually be more vibrant.”

Pat Nourse, creative director of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, thinks the pandemic might push locals to appreciate what we have here, especially as they can’t travel overseas right now. “Melbourne people are sophisticated diners and the pandemic hasn’t changed that,” he says. “It might even make us more discerning.”

Choosing to spend time and money at only the best places will mean not all restaurants survive. “It might cost us some businesses,” says Nourse. “We might even see some institutions close, and that will give us heavy hearts, but you do need that picky home populace to refine the quality of the food.” In the end, fussy diners create excellent places to eat.

“We need to think about what it was that made Melbourne a good food city in the first place and question whether that has changed,” he says. “The great restaurants, cafes and bars are an effect, not a cause. They’re a flowering of this city’s love for food.”