It has been a harsh winter for many high-profile Sydney restaurants, with a record number of hatted venues such as Oscillate Wildly and ACME announcing plans to close. But despite rising fixed costs and a weak economy, the modern steakhouse is thriving.
"On one side of the fence vegan eating is going off, but Sydney diners are really into steak at the moment too," said former Good Food Guide chef of the year Sean Connolly.
"I think steak's increasing popularity has a lot to do with more people choosing low carbohydrate diets. The only thing diners aren't eating at the moment is bread!"
Connolly recently launched his Steak and Co restaurant at the eight-hectare West HQ precinct built around Rooty Hill RSL. Meanwhile, Seagrass Hospitality-backed steakhouse 6 Head launched in June at the redeveloped Campbell's Stores building at Circular Quay.
Bistecca, dedicated solely to Tuscany's revered bistecca alla Fiorentina, has proved a big hit with punters on Bridge Street in the CBD and Firegrill, a 300-seat steakhouse headed by former Wildfire chef George Francisco, will soon open at Barrack Place near Wynyard Station.
The Argyle Smokehouse and Butchery also opened at Rosebery's Cannery hub in April with a private dining room and chef's table that can be lowered from the ceiling with a small degree of fanfare.
"People just love the idea of eating a beautiful piece of protein that doesn't have too much going on around it," said Rockpool culinary director Neil Perry. "It's sophisticated comfort food."
The cost of dining at contemporary steakhouses goes beyond The Black Stump. Rockpool Bar and Grill, for instance, offers a 550-gram rib-eye for $160. The 33-day-aged wagyu cut is sustainably farmed by David Blackmore in north-eastern Victoria.
"David deserves that price for raising pampered, stress-free animals," Perry said. "If we could charge less, we would, but it's extraordinary meat from an extraordinary farmer."
Anthony Puharich is chief executive of Vic's Meat and supplies beef to Rockpool and other hatted Sydney restaurants such as Icebergs, Firedoor and Quay. He said more Australians have stopped treating steak as "something to gorge on" within the last few years and are increasingly viewing beef as a luxury item for special occasions.
"Declining livestock numbers and unprecedented demand for Australian beef overseas means meat is more expensive than it's ever been," he said. "I find this means people are a lot more grateful for meat when they do have it, and happy to spend more on a special cut."
Co-owner of Argyle Smokehouse and Butchery Jonathan Glover expects more butcher-restaurant hybrids such as Macelleria in Bondi and Newtown, to be the next steakhouse trend in Sydney.
"Independent butchers are struggling to compete with supermarkets and have to offer something different," said Glover, who founded Hong Kong's Butchers Club in 2012 which expanded into an empire of 20 restaurants, butcher shops and chef's tables across Asia.
"This opens up opportunities. I believe in theatre, and I believe that people like to see what they're going to consume, so I have a concept in my mind of a little butcher shop with a walk-in fridge and restaurant behind it – a bit like a speakeasy. If I can find the right butcher in the right location, I'll be doing it."