Upmarket food court re-served as food cafe at Emporium Melbourne

On board: EARL Canteen's Simon O'Regan and Jackie Middleton.
On board: EARL Canteen's Simon O'Regan and Jackie Middleton. Photo: Penny Stephens

Melbourne's shopping-centre food courts have never been overly troubled by the notion of quality or fashion, yet the buzz over the opening of Emporium Melbourne on Wednesday is as much about the food as the footwear.

Without a McDonald's or KFC in sight, the food court - management prefers the phrase ''cafe court'' - is the new home of independent Melbourne names such as EARL Canteen, Jimmy Grants, Chinta Ria, Industry Beans and South Melbourne Dim Sims.

Emporium Melbourne centre manager Steve Edgerton is so emboldened by the on-trend mix of hospitality brands - including Sydney blow-ins Charlie & Co Burgers, Becasse Bakery and Jones the Grocer (all from the Becasse group) and New Shanghai Chinese Restaurant - that he uses the phrase ''the city's premium food destination''.

Whether that is over-egging the pudding, it is clear the 1980s food court concept is enjoying a modern makeover.

Most of the 30-odd food outlets will be housed in a third-floor atrium that will include 20-metre windows overlooking the city, 1100 seats and a mosaic mural depicting the city's history. Melbourne-based architecture firm Russell & George decorated the space.

A souvlaki from Jimmy Grants.
A souvlaki from Jimmy Grants. Photo: Michael Clayton-Jones

''I'd like to think this is the food court of the future,'' Mr Edgerton said. ''Melbourne diners are discerning, so the leasing team only approached those who could provide a point of difference.''

The haute food court concept takes its cues from Asia, where upmarket shopping centres are seen as desirable places to dine.

While Westfield Sydney's bold experiment in introducing fine-dining restaurants to a shopping mall was a failure, the idea of luring shoppers with a buzzing mid-market food court is catching on with the retail giants.


The fading early-'90s development Australia on Collins is closing in May, and a refurbishment will take the food court from the basement to a prominent second-level ''luxury first-class dining terrace'', said LaSalle Investment Management development director Matthew Bailey. ''No national brands, and no bain-maries,'' he promised.

A revival of Chadstone Shopping Centre's food court may also be on the cards, according to centre manager Scott Sullivan said.

EARL Canteen's Simon O'Regan said he and partner Jackie Middleton greeted the initial approach from Emporium Melbourne with scepticism.

Inside the Emporium 'cafe court'.
Inside the Emporium 'cafe court'. Photo: Supplied

''I think everybody was initially scared by the words 'food court', but Westfield Sydney's been doing its thing for five years now and that's touted as the benchmark,'' he said. ''Once they made it clear to us that it was going to be beautiful, we got on board.''