Melbourne restaurants spinning plates to find room for hungry diners

Pepe's Italian & Liquor is preparing to re-open at the end of this month.
Pepe's Italian & Liquor is preparing to re-open at the end of this month.  Photo: Joe Armao

In a city with famously fickle weather, Melburnians are throwing caution to the wind and snapping up outside tables at restaurants from October 26, the date that (until recently) was projected for Victoria reaching the 70 per cent vaccination target and easing back some restrictions.

"People just want to go out – they don't care if it's outside or inside," says Cinzia Buono, co-owner of Parkdale restaurant Buono in Melbourne's south-east.

Many restaurants have reported a surge in bookings with people making post-lockdown plans as soon as they can. Buono has had to introduce a second sitting time for Friday and Saturday nights, something the venue has not done previously.

In addition to strong demand, density quotas that limit how many patrons a venue can seat are making it extra difficult to book a table at popular restaurants post-lockdown.

Popular CBD wine bar Embla is doing three sittings on weekend nights and has revived Sunday lunch service to meet the demand for tables. Within a few hours of opening bookings, three-quarters of its seats were reserved for the first weekend in November when indoor dining is slated to open.

Prahran restaurant Firebird only opened a few days before Melbourne's first lockdown in March 2020 but is seeing huge ...
Prahran restaurant Firebird only opened a few days before Melbourne's first lockdown in March 2020 but is seeing huge demand for tables in November and December. Photo: Parker Blain

Restaurateur Andrew McConnell's newest venue, Gimlet, has seen "outrageous" demand, according to Loren Daniels, marketing manager across McConnell's venues. Gimlet's glam dining room and bar on the corner of Flinders Lane and Russell Street opened July last year, meaning it has barely had a showing in its first 16 months.

Tables for popular weekend time slots, such as 7pm on Saturday night, are booked until the end of the year. But guests who are happy to dine on the supper menu featuring late-night pasta and anchovy toast from 9.30pm onwards can easily land a spot on weekends.

Diners, apparently, have no issue with it. "People are so pumped that they're more flexible than ever," says Daniels.

Advertisement

Fridays and Saturdays at fellow city restaurant Pepe's Italian & Liquor are mostly full until the end of the year, according to owner Nick Kutcher, with people eager to enjoy a new Sicilian-themed menu and dining room set to be unveiled at the end of this month.

While night-time venues in the city are optimistic about diners' appetites, traditional business lunch spots, such as Caterina's Cucina e Bar, are relying on functions to balance the books.

"It's the only way to claw something back," says owner Caterina Borsato.

Pepe's Italian & Liquor in Melbourne's CBD setting up a brand-new outdoor area in preparation for dining to reopen.
Pepe's Italian & Liquor in Melbourne's CBD setting up a brand-new outdoor area in preparation for dining to reopen. Photo: Joe Armao

In 26 years of business, her Queen Street restaurant popular with lawyers and dealmakers has only ever offered lunch from Monday to Friday. Those hours remain unchanged, but the venue will be open on weekends and evenings through to December for corporate parties and Christmas functions.

Restaurateur Simon Blacher, whose Commune Group runs venues including Firebird and Tokyo Tina, says there is huge demand for group bookings, as people rush to book in celebrations and end-of-year catch-ups.

"I think it's going to be an unbelievable Christmas and New Year," he says. "Everyone has been champing at the bit to get out again, which is no surprise."

Andrew McConnell's newest restaurant Gimlet has some of the hottest tables in town.
Andrew McConnell's newest restaurant Gimlet has some of the hottest tables in town. Photo: Earl Carter

But some venues are waiting to open their bookings, driven partly by hesitancy about the high case numbers in the past week and whether that will change Melbourne's roadmap out of lockdown. 

"We will see what restrictions are like and seating capacities," says Patrick Liu, manager of HuTong Dumpling Bar. "We have to wait for government guidelines. But we are optimistic. We want to be open and serve the community again."

In addition to HuTong, it's worth watching out for bookings to open at Sebastian in Williamstown where Spanish bites are the go, or Yarraville fine-diner Navi, which plays with native Australian and Japanese flavours.

Weekend yum cha is on the cards at Lee Ho Fook when it reopens for indoor dining in early November.
Weekend yum cha is on the cards at Lee Ho Fook when it reopens for indoor dining in early November. Photo: Parker Blain

Finding enough staff is the other thing keeping owners up at night. Crucially, venues which offered takeaway through most of Melbourne's lockdowns have staff and suppliers readily at hand for when the doors reopen.

"[Delivery service] Providoor has been unbelievable for giving our staff a sense of purpose," says Pepe's Nick Kutcher. "They've been able to interact with each other, see the changes slowly happening through the venue, taste the new menus and workshop them."

However, job ads are still being posted thick and fast on many restaurants' social media accounts, as the hunt for casual staff intensifies in preparation for summer.

Andrew McConnell's restaurants, such as Cumulus Inc, have seen a strong demand for reservations for when Melbourne opens ...
Andrew McConnell's restaurants, such as Cumulus Inc, have seen a strong demand for reservations for when Melbourne opens lockdown since they officially opened their books on October 11. Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen

Tables still available to celebrate the end of lockdown in style

Bellota 181 Bank Street, South Melbourne

Stake your claim on a table, either umbrella-shaded or nestled inside, and snack on Nicky Riemer's parmesan-crumbed pork rib-eye or quail saltimbocca. Open from October 26. bellota.com.au

Buono 198 Como Parade West, Parkdale

Nab a seat outside at this Italian newcomer or wait until November for a spot in the dining room and a shot at the brand-new menu which includes seaweed spaghetti with bottarga and pangrattato. Open from October 26. buonoparkdale.com.au

Caterina's 221 Queen Street, Melbourne

Twenty-six years young, this CBD institution is still going strong for a reason. Reacquaint yourself with the pleasures of dining out for mid-week lunch. Open from November 5. caterinas.com.au

Cumulus Inc 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne

The original jewel in the crown of Andrew McConnell's restaurant empire is as slick as ever and currently working on new spring dishes to go alongside signatures such the lamb shoulder. Visit for mid-week lunch. Open from November 5. cumulusinc.com.au

Firebird 223 High Street, Prahran

The dishes and flavours of Vietnam get the wood-fired treatment at this fun-loving hangout. Book mid-week to get your taste of fire-tossed pipis and cool cocktails. Open from November 5. firebird.hanoihannah.com.au

Lee Ho Fook 11-15 Duckboard Place, Melbourne

Good news: bookings have only just opened for this pre-eminent contemporary Chinese spot. Better news: weekend yum cha is a new addition. Open for tasting menus, char siu pork and Tsingtao from November 5. leehofook.com.au

Pepe's Italian & Liquor 275-285 Exhibition Street, Melbourne

With space for up to 300 people outside and three separate indoor spaces, this Italian funhouse is a good bet for those keen for day drinks on the terrace or mid-week lunch and dinner. Open from October 26. pepesitalian.com.au

Zsa's 202 High Street, Northcote

Pop by this all-day spot mid-week to get a slice of Euro life. Dinners are available but in demand, however lunchtime steak frites or late afternoon salumi and spritzes for aperitivo are also fine ideas. Open from October 27. zsas.com.au