Far from retreating indoors for winter, Sydneysiders are booking high-end restaurants for a big night out with increased enthusiasm.
According to restaurant operators, since the harbour city resumed eating out after the easing of COVID-19 restrictions, something has shifted in people's dining behaviour.
Prices are high but demand is higher, with many restaurants making the most of an increased penchant for luxury items such as cellared wine and caviar.
Rose Bay institution Catalina has extended its opening hours to include Sunday nights to keep up with table demand. Catalina director Judy McMahon says that while the restaurant has always been a favourite for high-flyers, there has been a significant shift in dining habits across the city.
"We're now doing two sittings every service, at times doubling what was available before the pandemic, and we still can't keep up with demand," she says. "I think people are now so much more appreciative of fine-dining experiences because it was ripped away from them."
General manager of Fink hospitality group Jeremy Courmadias says restaurants in his employer's portfolio – including Quay, Bennelong, Otto and Surry Hills' Firedoor – have experienced an increase in demand for tables particularly on a Saturday evening. People are now comfortable making dinner plans a month in advance, he says.
"With travel off the table, people are looking at ways to experience this city, and luckily our restaurants can provide a great backdrop."
It's not hard to indulge at a Fink restaurant. Bennelong's three-course menu at the Opera House is $170 a head and offers Tasmanian rock lobster as an add-on. Guests eating across the pond at Quay have the choice between a $240 six-course menu or eight courses for $290.
Couples keen for a Saturday night table can expect a waiting time of around six weeks. A lengthy period, sure, but nothing compared to the almost 12-month waiting list for a kitchen-side spot at Firedoor.
Helmed by chef Lennox Hastie, the two-hatted restaurant has become so popular that some people with a reservation have forgotten about it by the time their dining date arrives. Courmadias credits Hastie's appearance on popular Netflix program Chef's Table last year for the long waitlist.
"Often we catch guests surprised by their pre-organisation," he says. Courmadias advises future guests to try for a mid-week sitting, or book in groups of four or six to jag a weekend reservation due to the way tables are configured.
A close second for the hardest reservation to score in Sydney goes to Nobu at Crown. With its American sister restaurants frequented by celebrities including Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, the sushi temple does not have a free Friday or Saturday dinner spot for two until at least October, except for the odd sitting after 9pm.
"Nobu has been incredibly popular – and we do hear that people are saying they can't get in," says Mark Holmes, Crown Sydney's non-gaming executive general manager.
"We encourage people to look at different times, consider a mid-week spot or visit the walk-in bar for after work drinks. It's probably one of the best kept secrets that you can turn up and get a seat at the bar."
The most exclusive part of Nobu's offering is Yoshii's Omakase, a ten-seat dining experience for $350 per person. All seats are currently filled through until August.
At Catalina, McMahon has also observed a shift in the amount people are spending dining out. "Our wine list and other big ticket items such as cocktails are selling off the charts," she says.
"We've also introduced caviar in small and large servings and that [has not traditionally] been something we thought we could do. We always thought we would be left with all the luxury stuff people weren't prepared to pay for, but the opposite has proved to be true.
"Perhaps people don't have anything else to spend their money on right now, so they're spending it on quality experiences at restaurants like ours".
With a fixed cost of $130 per person for Catalina's three-course a la carte menu, McMahon has also been surprised by the number of people choosing to use their state government-supplied Dine & Discover vouchers at the establishment.
"I suppose when you think about a person spending, say $200 at Catalina, $25 is still more than 10 per cent off their bill."
Five restaurants for a big night (or day) out
Aria 1 Macquarie Street, Sydney
With chef Joel Bickford in the kitchen for the past three years, food at Matt Moran's harbourside flagship has gone from strength to strength. Bridge and Opera House views are the backdrop for a $180 four-course menu with the option of rare wines from one of Australia's best cellars. Wait for a Saturday table for two: a few seats are left for tonight at the time of publication.
Bert's Bar and Brasserie 2 Kalinya Street, Newport
While Mimi's gets all the eastside attention for its Coogee Pavilion caviar bumps (see Terry Durack's column in Good Weekend), Merivale's Northern Beaches fine-diner has no shortage of fancy fish eggs, hand-picked mud crab and live lobster either. Non-locals should consider booking an Airbnb and getting friendly with the champagne list. Wait for a Saturday table for two: reservations are open today for lunch and dinner.
Catalina Lyne Park, New South Head Road, Rose Bay
Still going strong after 26 years of oysters, sashimi and seaplane arrivals. Punters really keen to push the superyacht out might consider the $80 roast suckling pig supplement paired with Domaine de la Romanee-Conti 2015 La Tache for a cool $6000. Wait for a Saturday table for two: currently two weeks, but it never hurts to call and check on the day.
Quay Upper Level, Overseas Passenger Terminal, The Rocks
Sydney's ultimate three-hatted, bells-and-whistles, Big Night Out experience. The ongoing absence of docked cruise ships ensures the Opera House is always in full view for Peter Gilmore's stunning dishes, such as pasture-raised Maremma quail, purple corn, orach and preserved currants. Wait for a Saturday table for two: a fortnight for lunch, six weeks for dinner.
Silks Level 3, Crown Sydney, 1 Barangaroo Avenue, Sydney
Crown's jade-on-gold shrine to Cantonese cooking offers high-end yum cha during the day and a la carte in the evening with all the hits: whole roast duck, truffle-topped lobster, coral trout from the tank and stir-fried prawns with pearl meat. If you ever wanted to drop $168 on "double-boiled bird's nest with American ginseng", this is the place. Wait for a Saturday table for two: there's lunch and late dinner availability this weekend.