What does a $5 million neighbourhood restaurant look like? Take a trip to Double Bay to find out.
That's the elevator pitch for Margaret: Chef Neil Perry's latest and final restaurant, named after his mum, aiming to be a heavy-hitting neighbourhood restaurant. A place to drop by for a round of oysters and a burger at the bar, maybe a nice piece of fish cooked over the woodfire in the restaurant.
Call it a culmination of Perry's decades of experience, all rolled into one $5 million restaurant on a Double Bay corner block. It has the neighbourhood vibe of his first restaurant, Bondi's Blue Water Grill, the pan-Asian flavours of his first city fine-diner, Rockpool, and the grand sensibilities of his first major corporate restaurant, Rockpool Bar and Grill.
The menu will be led by the high/low mix of things Sydney loves best – seafood and big-ticket glamour alongside burgers and wings. "It's very much the way I used to think about Rockpool in the '90s," he says. "You can come in and have the lobster with sambal. Or sit at the bar and have some fried chicken wings with kombu butter."
But Perry is tipping that many people will be there for the rotisserie chicken. "We always had it on at Rockpool, but it's hard for it to stand out at a steakhouse. We'll also do lots of lovely raw things. We've got an oyster fridge that runs at 16 degrees. Sydney Rocks love that."
This project is a real Perry family affair. His eldest daughter, Josephine Perry, 27, is running the floor. His middle daughter, Macy, 17, polishes cutlery and as soon as she's old enough, his youngest, Indy, 15, is keen to get a slice of the action. His wife, Sam, is also working behind the scenes.
I just saw this site, fell in love and committed straight away.Neil Perry
"Not to be morbid," says Perry, "but I kind of see myself living out my last days here."
On reservation numbers alone, this was going to be the biggest restaurant opening Perry had ever done. Without any marketing they were booked out for two months straight. But as the latest lockdown wore on, Margaret had to cancel 10,000 people who had reserved tables. This is the first time in the chef's career that he has opened a restaurant with no financial partners. The advantage of that is that 100 per cent of the business is his. But then, so is 100 per cent of the stress. "To not be able to open on the due date of late June was heartbreaking," he says. "It really put me in a bit of a dark spot for a while. A couple of weeks into it, I thought, 'If you don't snap out of this, what the hell are you going to do?' "
Perry did what he does best. He cooked. Between joining high-end restaurant delivery service Providoor and selling takeaway burgers to locals, he's been able to keep all his staff employed. "Without that, I would have lost all my energy."
The fact that he still has the kind of vigour it takes to start a restaurant from scratch after 35 years in the game is something else. Not too long ago, the chef was going to retire from the industry. But life decided to take him in a different direction. "I really did intend to take a breath and then I just saw this site, fell in love and committed straight away," Perry says.
"I've lived in the eastern suburbs most of my life and I've always loved Double Bay," he says. "I have great memories of it when I used to come here to eat in the '70s. I just sort of thought, 'This is an opportunity for me to come into the 'burbs and really just create a home for myself.' "
And because he's a man who most definitely does not like to stay still, he's starting his own wine import business, Crushed, with the restaurant's sommelier, Richard Healy. He's also bringing Melbourne bread legends Mike and Mia Russell to run a Sydney outpost of Baker Bleu close to Margaret.
While Margaret is already booked until Christmas, there will always be tables set aside for walk-ins. Outdoor seats will be available on a first-come first-served basis. "I don't want to be the sort of place that's booked out all the time and you don't ever feel you can use it to drop by for a drink and snack," Perry says. "That's a really important part of the neighbourhood ethos: having a good chunk of seats available any time."
Neil Perry is in a unique position. Having operated a swathe of city fine diners, his own neighbourhood restaurant to see out the rest of his career comfortably. To be able to set up a retirement plan where you still get to do what you love without being stretched in too many directions is the dream for anyone, in any field.
"I think it's taken me a long time to realise I've done a lot of things in my life and I've opened restaurants in all sorts of places. I don't regret for one minute all the amazing things I've done in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth.
"But I really just want to be here with my customers and my staff and just have that interaction again where I'm totally responsible for the restaurant. I own it for the first time in my life. It's all mine, so I'm not going anywhere."
Bookings for Margaret will reopen on October 20.
30-36 Bay Street (corner Guilfoyle Avenue), Double Bay, Sydney, 02 9068 8888, margaretdoublebay.com