Gambaro Seafood Restaurant

Superb: Spaghetti with prawns, zucchini and bottarga.
Superb: Spaghetti with prawns, zucchini and bottarga. Photo: Chris Hyde

33 Caxton St Petrie Terrace, QLD 4000

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Opening hours Mon-Fri 11:30 AM – 11:30 PM, Sat 5:30 – 11:30 PM, Sun 6:00 – 10:00 AM
Features Accepts bookings, Accommodation, Bar, Breakfast-brunch, Business lunch, Events, Gluten-free options, Groups, Licensed, Romance-first date, Wheelchair access, Outdoor seating, Vegetarian friendly, Private dining
Prices Expensive (mains over $40)
Chef Lukas McEwan
Seats 250
Payments Diner's Club, eftpos, AMEX, Cash, Visa, Mastercard
Phone (07) 3369 9500

I've been wondering whether my recent attraction to some of Brisbane's golden oldies is an age thing, but I've come to the conclusion it's just ennui.

There's so much sameness in Brisbane hospitality that ironically it has become necessary to turn to the old to find something fresh.

Restaurants where waiters wear suits and tables are dressed with crisp linen are rare, but fortunately old-school restaurateurs, such as Andy Georges, of Il Centro, and the Gambaros have been steadfast keepers of the flame.

Unlikely marriage: Tuna tartare with raspberry and beetroot sauce.
Unlikely marriage: Tuna tartare with raspberry and beetroot sauce. Photo: Chris Hyde

The Gambaro​ name has been synonymous with hospitality since the 1950s. The family started modestly with a fish and chip shop in Caxton Street and a seafood wholesale site in South Brisbane, before opening Gambaro Seafood Restaurant in 1974. In 2013, the family added to their property portfolio with Black Hide Steakhouse across the road, then last year, a hotel above the restaurant.

In its heyday, Gambaro was Brisbane's best seafood restaurant, a special-occasion experience saved for date nights or business-deal lunches. Its survival through the introduction of the fringe benefits tax, the recession and the increase in competition, including in recent years the additions to Caxton Street of craft beer bars and gastropubs, must surely be down to its loyal regulars.

As befits its age, the restaurant has had an occasional nip and tuck over the years. Stripped of its Roman-style statuary and dark-brick walls, it feels more contemporary and spacious. A pearlised gold wall features tiles like fish scales, there's thick carpet underfoot, and well-spaced tables are ideal for private tete-a-tetes or business wheeler-dealing.

Oysters served with mignonette dressing and a miniature Tabasco bottle.
Oysters served with mignonette dressing and a miniature Tabasco bottle. Photo: Chris Hyde

Lukas McEwan, an ex-Rockpool chef who also heads the hatted Black Hide Steakhouse, recently took over the reins from long-serving chef Sunil Savur​. He has introduced some of his own dishes, but the menu still has the odd retro favourite: prawn cocktail, crayfish thermidor​ and part-owner Michael Gambaro's "Michael's Special" – a crumbed barramundi fillet with parmesan egg cream.

Old favourites aside, the menu is divided into share plates, mains and fish of the day, as well as a surf'n'turf grill section. Roast split king prawns, pleasantly smoky and sweet, are served with herbs and a tomato and olive salad, while the unlikely sounding marriage of raspberry and beetroot sauce with glistening ruby cubes of tuna tartare turns out to be a surprisingly harmonious union.

The fish of the day section may be a bit of a misnomer, as the menu looks too substantial to be reprinted daily. There are half a dozen on offer, including Ray's bream and Mooloolaba swordfish, most served grilled. Our kingfish fillet arrives precision cooked: crisp, crackled skin over moist flesh with a simple leaf salad, lemon and aioli.

Contemporary and spacious: Inside Gambaro Seafood Restaurant.
Contemporary and spacious: Inside Gambaro Seafood Restaurant. Photo: Chris Hyde

There's a surfeit of other piscine offerings: scallops with lemon and butter, calamari, octopus, saffron-chilli mussels and Moreton Bay bugs with a lemon beurre blanc, as well as the ubiquitous (and surprisingly well-priced at $68.50) seafood platter. For those feeling flush, or in possession of a generous expense account, mud crab or rock lobster at a per kilogram market price comes with garlic or lemon butter, ginger, soy and shallot, or Singaporean chilli style.

An elegant Clare Valley riesling proves to the perfect partner for pristine Tasmanian oysters shucked to order, accompanied by rye bread, a mignonette dressing and a doll-sized bottle of Tabasco. In general, the wine list is disappointingly low risk, and doesn't venture beyond the safety of big-name wineries.  

A couple of wild-card steaks for the carnivores and a handful of pasta dishes round out the menu, including, naturally, a marinara. However, it's the superb spaghetti with thin ribbons of zucchini, sweet al-dente prawns, bottarga​ and crunchy pangrattato​ crumbs that may well turn me into one of those regulars.

Smoky and sweet: Roasted split king prawns.
Smoky and sweet: Roasted split king prawns. Photo: Chris Hyde

Dining at Gambaro is like running into an old friend you haven't seen for years, realising that you still have an awful lot in common and wondering why you ever lost touch in the first place. Its Old World spirit of hospitality is a breath of fresh air and, even after all these decades, Gambaro still takes home the gold as the best seafood restaurant in Brisbane.