What it's like to dine out in Melbourne as venues reopen

Tara and Kevin enjoy a long awaited drink during their break, in the 'igloo' at The Station Hotel in Footscray.
Tara and Kevin enjoy a long awaited drink during their break, in the 'igloo' at The Station Hotel in Footscray.  Photo: Christopher Hopkins

If you had been asked in February what you would miss most if restaurants, cafes and pubs unthinkably vanished overnight, what would you have said? The service? A dish? Did you ever think it would be as simple as being able to sit down? That has the overwhelming response from Melbourne customers dining out today for the first time in months as restrictions in Victoria lift.

Melbourne weather and an extension of the work-from-home rule means the city is not yet abuzz, but that hasn't diminished enthusiasm.

A strangely empty Chin Chin, which re-opened today and is operating under the enforced distancing restrictions.
A strangely empty Chin Chin, which re-opened today and is operating under the enforced distancing restrictions.  Photo: Christopher Hopkins

"It's so exciting to be in a restaurant again," exclaims Pellegrini's regular Jane Carnegie, sitting down for coffee at Melbourne's iconic espresso bar. The Bourke Street space looks different to its usual bustling self. Placemats printed with celebrity faces separate the stools, ensuring social distancing, and diners are asked to write down their names and mobile numbers for contact tracing, but greetings are loud and sincere as each new customer enters the bar.

Carnegie has good reason to choose Pellegrini's as a first port of call. She has a lifelong friendship with now-retired operator Nino Pangrazio, and recalls when in January of 1963 the restaurant "came down to Sorrento and catered my coming out dance." Having contracted polio at the age of six, Carnegie proudly says "I'm still vertical," and is happy the venue remains so.

Nostalgia seems to be driving many diners' first choice of outing after months of lockdown, with many opting for their local pub. Evelyn Liong, a hospitality veteran, has been looking forward to dinner and a pot, saying, "nothing at home can replicate tap beer at the pub."

Long time customer Jane Carnegie is ecstatic that Pellegrini's is open again.
Long time customer Jane Carnegie is ecstatic that Pellegrini's is open again. Photo: Christopher Hopkins

Ruby Meredith is also spending her first night out at her local because "it's a pub I have been to during a breakup, where I've had staff listen to my sadness."

Until restrictions lift further, that quintessential pub, cafe and restaurant experience will feel a little different. At noon, Chin Chin, Chris Lucas's perenially busy Flinders Lane eatery, is usually packed with diners with more hopefuls queued outside. Today, the first sitting sees 20 customers spread across the large, luminous room.

Creating atmosphere under strict, stage one restrictions, when so few customers can dine in is the challenge facing venue operators. At Chin Chin, unused seats are still set. "We tried removing furniture but it didn't work," says venue manager Holly Lucas. With numbers limited, these seats will be filled by a second lunch sitting after one hour, a time limit imposed to make operating viable.

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Other venues like the Station Hotel in Footscray have taken a more whimsical approach, installing inflatable igloos that both fill out empty spaces and give groups a sense of personal safety.

St Ali in South Melbourne has taken a similar approach, hanging large theatrical drapes across portions of the large warehouse space to reduce the feeling of being in an empty restaurant.

But safety is also paramount. Hand sanitiser is in evidence everywhere and staff have been briefed to reduce contact as much as possible. At certain venues like Fancy Hanks, apps like Mr Yum can be downloaded so that customers can view menus and order and pay, contact-free.

An uphill battle still awaits most operators, who hope the public are understanding of the restrictions. For pubs and bars, this includes the requirement that all diners must order a meal with any drinks. For all venues, first names and phone numbers must be collected, and breaches of social distancing rules may require management to ask offending diners to leave.

Hospitality operators are cautiously optimistic. Diners are enthusiastically booking their favourite venues. Salvatore Malatesta, owner of St Ali, says he received a text from a customer saying he was "taking the day off just to come for lunch."