Not a matter of just pressing go: Melbourne restaurant owners plan for reopening

Chef Steve Nairn of Omnia preparing to open his restaurant but feeling uncertain.
Chef Steve Nairn of Omnia preparing to open his restaurant but feeling uncertain. Photo: Simon Schluter

Premier Daniel Andrews has warned Melbourne's hospitality industry it will be given little advance notice about changes in operating restrictions. When the data shows it's safe, the rules for business will change swiftly. 

But how easy is it for restaurants to reopen in a rush? Omnia chef Stephen Nairn is keen to welcome diners back to his South Yarra restaurant, but it's not a matter of just pressing go. 

"We are eager, but we can't throw open the doors as soon as we're allowed to," he says. "We will evaluate the announcement and then execute a plan if it feels worthwhile and right. After so many delays and changes, we can't afford to get our hearts broken once again."

Omnia restaurant, South Yarra.
Omnia restaurant, South Yarra. Photo: Eddie Jim

Nairn will be combing the guidelines for information on permitted diner numbers both indoors and outside, cleaning rules, booking and contact collection protocols, mask wearing and more. 

"We don't even know if people will be allowed to travel more than five kilometres to dine and if they can spend more than two hours out of their homes," he says.

Understanding the rules is only step one. "The menu is dependent on what people are allowed to do," he says. 

The Left-Handed Chef in South Melbourne is installng outdoor speakers to play Israeli music when it reopens.
The Left-Handed Chef in South Melbourne is installng outdoor speakers to play Israeli music when it reopens. Photo: Simon Schluter

"If someone's sitting curbside, will they be more inclined to want something casual? Chablis and snacks, maybe steak frites? I can't see someone eating deboned quail on the street." 

On top of writing a new menu, there's produce ordering, rostering, website updates and training in systems that keep diners and staff safe. 

"The safety of our staff is paramount," says Nairn. "We have people worried about coronavirus, just like every other employer. If we need additional safety gear, we'll get it."


Melo Malazarte owns Migrant Coffee in West Footscray, currently open for takeaway. "We don't wait for announcements," she says. "We operate under whatever the regulations allow anyway. We prefer not to keep chopping and changing because that's when confusion happens." 

Sitting tight is also a way for Malazarte to send a message to her neighbourhood. "We are all dying to get out for avocado on toast, but that rush back to normal life is what got us into this position in the first place," she says. 

"Doing our bit to remind people there is still a very serious situation might mean not having dine-in. We will keep going with takeaways."

Ehud Malka runs Left-Handed Chef in South Melbourne. At the moment, the dining room in his Israeli restaurant is a sea of takeaway boxes.  

"It's like a warehouse," he says. "I need to organise and deep clean. I understand they can't give hospitality much notice but it's not just, 'OK guys, open the doors'." 

In preparation for outdoor dining, Malka is installing speakers to play Israeli music to al fresco diners. 

"I want to transfer the atmosphere as much as possible," he says. "I don't want people to feel like they are doing us a favour to eat here. I want to give them as much as I can."

In the city, Fancy Hanks' owner Mike Patrick is optimistically taking bookings for Grand Final Day. "If we can open, great," he says. "If we can't, we'll just wait a bit longer. People will be understanding if we have to cancel." 

He's sanguine about the variables. "I'm watching the news every morning to see how many cases there are," he says. 

"It seems touch and go but there is nothing I can do. No-one is doing this on purpose to punish business. Whether we are open for the grand final or not, at least we are getting ready. I am excited about getting our customers in and the city being vibrant again."