Plans revealed for the most ambitious restaurant opening of 2021

Vicki Wild and Martin Benn on the terrace of their soon-to-open restaurant, Society.
Vicki Wild and Martin Benn on the terrace of their soon-to-open restaurant, Society.  Photo: SImon Schluter

Restaurant mogul Chris Lucas has revealed the first glimpse of Society, his new 300-seat blockbuster restaurant fronted by chef Martin Benn and partner Vicki Wild, which is due to open in March 2021 after months of delays. 

Lucas, owner of city restaurants Chin Chin and Kisume, says the pandemic almost closed the venue – the most ambitious in Australia – before it even opened as an anchor tenant of the $1.5 billion 80 Collins Street tower.

The stakes are high, as chef Benn and front of house manager Wild closed their three-hatted fine dining restaurant Sepia in Sydney two years ago and moved south to prepare for the opening, initially expected for mid-2020. "In the end we weren't going to let a pandemic compromise this and I've really stuck my neck out," says Lucas. "Very rarely do you get the chance to build something from scratch on the corner of Collins Street and Exhibition Street in the heart of Melbourne." 

Martin Benn and Vicki Wild closed their three-hatted restaurant, Sepia, in Sydney two years ago to open Society.
Martin Benn and Vicki Wild closed their three-hatted restaurant, Sepia, in Sydney two years ago to open Society. 

A state-of-the-art kitchen, which Lucas dubs the "Starship Enterprise", has been custom-built for a brigade of 30 kitchen staff, several of whom were hired before the first lockdown in March. Benn was given carte blanche to design his ultimate workshop, which he conceived like a theatrical stage with wide service corridors around the perimeter. An elaborate induction cooking system was built in France by Bonnet Maestro, with a separate Josper pit oven to cook over charcoal.

Society will offer guests several "experiences" across a 1700 metre footprint on the third-floor podium of the tower owned by property giant Dexus. Private  lifts open to a 40-seat lounge with a "monolithic" stone bar, leading to a 100-seat dining room flush with booths and aspects over Exhibition Street. The expansive Lillian Terrace – named after Lillian Whiteman, who's boutique Le Louvre opened at the original site in 1934 – seats a further 100 diners in a more relaxed setting looking towards the top end of Collins Street. A second kitchen will service three private dining rooms seating up to 30 guests each. 

The dining room menu will be an evolution of the dishes Benn became famous for at Sepia – experimental, high-end Japanese-influenced cuisine – while the terrace will be a snapshot of Benn's early career working in London, offering "left-of-centre" takes on traditional European dishes, from pasta to steak. The lounge will feature elegant, drink-friendly snacks and small plates. 

The terrace will be a snapshot of Benn's early career working in London featuring 'left of centre' dishes.
The terrace will be a snapshot of Benn's early career working in London featuring 'left of centre' dishes.  

"People can come in for finer food if they want to, but they can also come in and have something casual, a glass of wine, some oysters, or sit at the bar," says Benn.

The UK-born chef, also known for his tenure under chef Tetsuya Wakuda, has had months to develop various a la carte food offerings, testing dishes including the Toffee Apple, a 130-step recipe which featured as a semi-final challenge on MasterChef Australia

The team hopes this will be more than just a restaurant, but an international dining destination on par with the best restaurants of New York, London or Tokyo, and a training ground for future talent. "I've always been a risk taker and my job is to think about what could be possible," says Lucas. "Now people won't have to go overseas to visit one of the great kitchens with one of the great chefs." 

Good Food's 100 Good Things, a guide to the summer's best eating and drinking is out free with The Age on Tuesday, December 8.