Victorian restaurant owners back continued lockdown over partial opening

Embla co-owner Christian McCabe: 'I don't want to go to an empty restaurant. It doesn't feel right.'
Embla co-owner Christian McCabe: 'I don't want to go to an empty restaurant. It doesn't feel right.' Photo: Eddie Jim

Victorian diners might be disappointed that the state's cafes and restaurants are not allowed to reopen yet, but industry leaders say a continued closure is preferable to serving a tightly limited number of customers.

There had been speculation in the lead-up to Premier Daniel Andrews' Monday announcement that Victoria would follow other states including NSW in setting a 10 person limit on cafe and restaurant seating.

Instead Mr Andrews said there would be no change to the rules on food businesses pointing to advice from the hospitality industry that having just 10 patrons might not be a viable option.

Citing operating costs and poor atmosphere, numerous Victorian restaurateurs said they would not have reopened even if they had been given the green light to seat up to 10 diners.

"While some people are frustrated by the closeness of our tables and the fact it's loud, we create energy. I don't want to go to an empty restaurant. It doesn't feel right," says Christian McCabe, who co-owns popular CBD wine bar Embla.

Embla recently launched a take-home menu for the weekends, and McCabe thinks diners can better support restaurants in coming weeks by embracing the loosened restriction on house guests to have dinner parties.

Lee Ho Fook chef Victor Liong says he won't open for 10 customers at a time.
Lee Ho Fook chef Victor Liong says he won't open for 10 customers at a time. Photo: Justin McManus.

"I see people ordering in some nice food. That isn't the worst thing. This next phase can be fun," he says.

McCabe said he would be surprised if anyone could make a case for serving just 10 customers. Even lower capacity, high-end three-hat restaurants such as Brae and Attica, which each host a maximum of 40 guests, say they would not have reopened had they been allowed.

"The staffing and costs would be too great to sustain and the customers wouldn't have any ambience," says Victor Liong, chef-owner of contemporary Chinese restaurant Lee Ho Fook.

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Liong's venue seats 80, so he says he might consider opening when up to 20 diners are allowed.

Brae's chef-owner Dan Hunter says he would consider opening again at a capacity of 20, but he would still be "concerned about the time and work that goes into opening, taking bookings, communicating with guests and then potentially needing to change it all as regulations change". 

He has been selling produce boxes and operating as a bakery during shutdown, and will continue that approach until there is more certainty.

"We think it's a positive to not open just yet, and hopefully everything will be safer in the near future." 

Attica's Ben Shewry says he is happy some restrictions can be eased but will be "continuing with Attica at Home", the restaurant's popular takeaway service, until they can justify opening the high-labour fine diner. 

The Premier said that if Victoria continues to contain the pandemic, cafes and restaurants may be in a position to seat more patrons from June.

"We might not have to stick with the number of 10. We might be able to go higher," he said.

But McCabe says he thinks reopening timetables will also depend on the damage that has been done in shutdown.

He says "some restaurants went in with a lot of debt, and if you're paying thousands of dollars per square metre for city rent, even a looser restriction of one person per four square metres won't make sense".