Chin Chin restaurant owner has big plans for historic Bourke street site

The Bourke Street restaurant formerly known as Society is being reinvented.
The Bourke Street restaurant formerly known as Society is being reinvented.  Photo: Angela Wylie

Prolific restaurateur Chris Lucas is doubling down on his upcoming French bistro project, Batard, announcing today that he has taken the lease on 23 Bourke Street, which once housed Melbourne dining icon Society.

Batard, which was announced last year and is already under construction at 19-21 Bourke Street, will now open mid-2020 and operate across the two heritage-listed buildings, allowing Lucas to expand on the original concept.

The deal is significant both for Lucas and Melbourne's dining history buffs. Society stood alongside the likes of Florentino as one of the city's great dining institutions. Opened by immigrant Giuseppe Codognotto in the 1930s, it was built, like the Waiter's Restaurant, to cater to Melbourne's immigrant population and the business stayed in the family until 1983.

Chris Lucas at the site of Batard, in Bourke Street.
Chris Lucas at the site of Batard, in Bourke Street. Photo: Supplied

Society continued to trade under various names and owners until 2016. The three-level building sold in 2017 for $8.07 million. Most recently it housed a fascinating, short-lived experiment for the outback-themed Ettamogah Pub group, an upscale restaurant and sports bar which shuttered within a year.

Lucas was approached by the current owners of 23 Bourke Street on return from a research trip to France. He says "it was a rare opportunity to extend my thoughts and ideas beyond what I had originally planned for the corner site. Melbourne has too few buildings left from this era, so I really couldn't say no."

Batard was originally pitched as a Parisian bistro with a focus on charcuterie, beef in various guises including steak frites and chateaubriand en croute, with a pinot noir-heavy wine list to match. Lucas' initial ideas for the larger venue are unconfirmed, but the expanded vision includes an oyster bar, rotisserie section and, as with Lucas' Japanese leviathan Kisume, which features a dedicated chablis bar, a strong wine program.

"Our wine philosophy will underpin the venue," says Lucas, who is planning to install a wine bar, wine store and open terrace that will complement the restaurant. This will be curated by industry heavyweights Philip Rich (behind Kisume's lists), Jacqueline Turner (Chin Chin Sydney) and Jordan Marr. It is "one the most exciting and talented wine teams in Australia," according to Lucas.

Building permissions must be sought, but Lucas sees the restaurant uniting the two spaces. "I'm really looking forward to bringing these old buildings back to life and being a neighbour to some old friends who I greatly respect. Hopefully I can in a small way be part of the next chapter of this beautiful part of Melbourne."

Batard is slated for 2020, making it a big year for the Lucas restaurant group, who will also open their reinvention of three-hatted Sydney restaurant Sepia at the 80 Collins development.