Neil Perry: Why I'm closing Rockpool

Neil Perry isn't the first name that comes to mind when you think of fashion boutiques being set on fire. But back in 1989 when Rockpool first opened its doors, that was exactly what happened.

"In the first few months of the restaurant, our electrical main was next door in a fashion store and we kept on overheating. I remember this Saturday night when we were flat out and the thing blew up. There was so much heat we'd actually set the bloody thing on fire. It was a nightmare."

Neil Perry's Rockpool is no more: it's making way for Eleven Bridge.
Neil Perry's Rockpool is no more: it's making way for Eleven Bridge. Photo: Nic Walker

Fast forward 27 years and 66 hats later, and Rockpool is about to close for good.

"It's completely the end of an era," says Perry, who has been at the head of the successful restaurant group, through every name (Rockpool, Rockpool (fish), Rockpool again, Rockpool on Bridge then Rockpool Est. 1989) and every side business – some of which are no longer (Wockpool, XO) and others that are taking flight and launching across the nation (Burger Project). "But I feel like it's the start of a new one."

"It's certainly not a decision you make lightly."

The headache, according to the restaurant kingpin who now commands nearly 1000 staff across Australia, is his fancy steak restaurant – Rockpool Bar and Grill – taking up too much name real estate. "When we moved to Bridge Street, we really thought we'd get out from underneath the big shadow of Bar and Grill. But we'd have at least 100 people a month who would go to the wrong restaurant. It just got to the point that it was driving us completely crazy." 

The chef is also sick of fine dining – both eating it, and living it. "I travel around the world now and dine in modern three hat/three star/top 50 restaurants and I just get fatigued with flavour. Sometimes the food's just not all that delicious. I used to visit France in the '90s and early '00s and eat at Robuchon or Frédy Girardet in Switzerland and those meals would be amazing. I think we want to move towards that a little bit more. So yes, it's heartbreaking in a way but we've got a really strong idea of what we want to do."

Rockpool Bar and Grill will continue to trade business as usual, while Perry will look to open a different restaurant on the original Rockpool site - without the name issues. His new restaurant will be called Eleven Bridge, and while he can't give definitive dish examples from the new venture, which will open in August, he says they can expect a more flexible a la carte menu that'll feel a lot more like the Rockpool of the '90s/early '00s. He can also confirm that executive chef Phil Wood will be staying on, as will head sommelier Sebastian Crowther and restaurant manager Silvio Brentan.

"One of the things that happens is that at some stage in your career, you forget why you're cooking. You kind of stop and think, 'Where are we up to now, what are we doing?', and you realise that something you were doing ages ago was something you really loved and you want to get back there."

So what has the industry legend learnt from running one of the country's most successful and long-standing fine dining restaurants? "It never stops. Every day is a refocus on detail and energy and a revitalisation of the team and when you're working at that level you just can't have a bad day. Sydney has been really kind to us. Lots of places don't last 27 years and we are amazingly blessed to have done that."