After a two-year hiatus, The Good Food Guide is back with its hats and scores in a new format that sees reviewers fan out across Victoria and NSW awarding hats and hearts to 600 restaurants.
For the first time in its 42-year history, the Guide will award one, two or three hats to deserving restaurants, along with a new category of ranking – a heart, which denotes this is a place reviewers would cross town for because it provides an experience that adds something special to the dining scene.
Nearly 60 reviewers in two states head out into a hospitality industry trying to balance intense demand for seats with a chronic lack of staff that leaves restaurants unable to operate at full capacity.
"If ever we needed a Good Food Guide with teeth, it's now," says Roslyn Grundy, editor of The Age Good Food Guide 2023.
"New restaurants are opening every week, and bookings are strong. But behind the kitchen door, some restaurants are really struggling with staff shortages.
"It's resulting in restaurants restricting their hours or opening fewer days, and simplifying or trimming their menus, something both the reviewing team and diners need to look out for."
"Luckily, I live for this industry, I love it, otherwise there is no way I would be here still trying to make it work."
The industry is responding to the shortages in increasingly innovative ways. Thomas Pash, chief executive officer of Hunter St. Hospitality and Pacific Concepts, led an overseas recruitment drive seeking staff for the group's restaurants, which include Rosetta and Rockpool Bar & Grill in Melbourne.
Pash says they met hundreds of hospitality staff in six countries over three weeks, hiring 120 people. The company will pay for their airfares, visas and temporary accommodation when they arrive, as well as providing "on-going support when they land, including setting up bank accounts".
Chef Joe Vargetto, who is soon to open Cucina Povera in Melbourne's CBD with restaurateur Maurice Terzini, has recruited staff from Sydney to ready the restaurant and says every day "sets a new benchmark of challenge".
"There are staff issues, supply chain issues and costing issues; the price I pay for calamari, for example, can increase by 30 per cent in a week," says Vargetto. "Luckily, I live for this industry, I love it, otherwise there is no way I would be here still trying to make it work and trying to open this place in June."
Chef Frank Camorra, owner of the MoVida restaurants, says the past six months have been the busiest he can recall in 20 years. He believes staffing conditions will continue to be tough until international students and workers start flowing into the system again. "They are starting to trickle back," he says.
The Guide, which will be released later this year, is the most respected independent guide in Australia. Venues are reviewed anonymously and scored according to a transparent and rigorous rating system, and meals are always paid for in full.
"The return of the scoring system after two years helps set industry benchmarks that allow people to make smart choices about where they dine at a time when for many, money is tight," says Grundy.
"Over the past 42 years the Guide has helped Victoria develop a great restaurant scene by creating dining yardsticks that provide context and balance, and by educating diners. Basically, by helping good diners find good restaurants, and vice versa."
The new edition will have a sharper focus on suburban gems, she says. "The new heart symbol will indicate the eateries critics would happily cross town for – a hole-in-the wall serving deeply delicious noodles, for example, or a spot in a suburban shopping strip sending out flaky southern Indian flatbread. They're places that may not be awarded a hat, but still provide stunning food and are integral to Victoria's dining culture."
The separate guides to Victoria and NSW, in a magazine format, will be released later this year.
Good Food's new white-and-gold restaurant gift card is fee-free for restaurants so every dollar you spend goes directly back into the industry. Visit goodfood.gift