How Melbourne restaurants are adjusting to the new normal

Brae's Dan Hunter and head gardener Nina Breidahl gathering the winter harvest for reopening.
Brae's Dan Hunter and head gardener Nina Breidahl gathering the winter harvest for reopening. Photo: Jason South

It has been a jubilant first week out of lockdown for many cafes, pubs and restaurants.

But some operators are holding back. Ben Shewry has announced Attica will continue its at-home dining series and merchandise sales for the time being. In contrast, Dan Hunter's three-hat restaurant Brae, whose service-style, and intricate dish preparation, is a serious endeavour, has now ceased their produce and baking operations to prepare to reopen full steam on June 25.

Thankfully for Hunter, the restaurant was able to retain its staff, a challenge in regional areas, and a bumper autumn harvest will fuel the $300 -a-head menu. Bookings are open, and will be rolled out in stages with spaces from July 3-August 31 being released on June 11.

Cookes is catering private dinner parties.
Cookes is catering private dinner parties. Photo: Kate Shanasy

For cocktail bars, reopening means even more pivoting thanks to a requirement that all drinks must be consumed with a proper meal. To comply, places such as Bonny in Fitzroy, which was one month young at shutdown, have collaborated with restaurants. IDES chef Peter Gunn has created a dinner menu for $35 comprising focaccia and pickles, beef cheek or eggplant curry, and sides, to allow the bar to trade.

Other businesses, such as Shane Delia's newly-launched Providoor service (which delivers finish-at-home menus from top restaurants such as his own Maha, and Flower Drum), and Cookes Food, an event catering company, are hoping a dinner party renaissance will provide new revenue streams.

While the 20-person guest limit in homes remains, Cookes, working with Donati's Fine Meats, Ash Bros seafood, That's Amore cheese and Bread Club, is offering $155-a-head parties including all crockery, ice and waitstaff.

Mister Bianco owner-chef Joe Vargetto in the kitchen of his Kew restaurant.
Mister Bianco owner-chef Joe Vargetto in the kitchen of his Kew restaurant. Photo: Eddie Jim

Joe Vargetto, of Mister Bianco and Massi, has tirelessly pivoted over the shutdown, running produce from the back of a truck and delivering lasagnes in a Mini. He says as soon as reopening was announced the phones were unmanageable, and they had to shut off online reservations to cope. Vargetto says "we could have served people a thousand times over."

While that's cheering and bookings have generally been excellent, Vargetto says CBD restaurants are now facing the prospect of a permanent loss of clientele with several large corporations offering employees the chance to work from home for good.

Pubs have also faced a challenging week of having to break it to keen drinkers that they'll need to pair that pot with a proper meal. Venues such as the Carringbush Hotel have also experienced no-shows, potentially due to customer ignorance that a table of four constitutes 20 per cent of their legal dining capacity. This may lead to unfamiliar territory of putting money where your mouth is and making deposits for parmas.