Icon review: Macleay Street Bistro

Cootamundra grass-fed lamb loin with heirloom carrots, pomme mousseline and pea puree.
Cootamundra grass-fed lamb loin with heirloom carrots, pomme mousseline and pea puree. Photo: James Brickwood

73A MacLeay St Potts Point, NSW 2011

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Opening hours Mon-Fri 5–11pm, Sat-Sun 11:30am–11pm
Features Accepts bookings, Bar, Vegetarian friendly, Gluten-free options, Licensed, Romance-first date
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Payments Diner's Club, eftpos, AMEX, Cash, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 02 9358 4891

Bitter wind blows through Potts Point and locals bury their hands into Burberry trenches. It's a Monday night and I haven't been this cold all year. This is weather for watching Roman Holiday under a blanket. Weather for adding too much brandy to a pot of mulled wine. Weather for French onion soup at Macleay Street Bistro.

The casual (but not too casual) bistro has provided Potts Point locals with steak frites and yes-we-can service for more than 30 years. The original owner was Kiwi chef Mark Armstrong who achieved fame in the Hawke era with Paddington restaurant Pegrum's, and business partners Noeline O'Keefe and Carole Becka took the reins in 1995. Mark Best was on the pans in those early days. Yes, that Mark Best. The Marque chef began cooking at Macleay Street Bistro in 1990 and was named Josephine Pignolet Young Chef of the Year during his time there.

Current owners Phillip Fikkers and Mark Campbell were handed the keys in 2013 and they knew enough about local tastes to keep things business-as-usual. Steak tartare remains hand-cut to order, cheese souffle is always twice-baked and the French onion soup is still served hotter than Hades. "Here it is, sir," says the waiter and my new best friend on this cold, cold night. "The greatest French onion soup in Sydney." He's not wrong. The sweet tangle of onions in savoury broth is the ultimate winter dish. It's topped with a raft of bread and comte and using your teeth to scrape congealed cheese off the spoon is all part of the fun.  

A loyal customer following is key to Macleay Street Bistro's success.
A loyal customer following is key to Macleay Street Bistro's success. Photo: James Brickwood

Fikkers has been dining at Macleay Street Bistro since he left high school in 1992. It was one of the few BYO restaurants in the neighbourhood (and still is at $14 a bottle and free corkage on Sunday), which meant the university student could swipe plonk from his parents' cellar and eat on the cheap. However, when Josephine Perry (daughter of Neil) opened Missy French around the corner in 2015, Fikkers thought his favourite bistro's days were numbered.

"Missy French had a [rumoured] $2 million fitout and some of the best food knowledge in Sydney behind it," says the former customer service professional. "But that bistro closed after a year and we're still charging on."

He owes the restaurant's success to a loyal customer following and employing head chefs who contribute to the brand instead of telling him the menu is "too old-fashioned".

The ultimate winter dish: Macleay Street Bistro's French onion soup.
The ultimate winter dish: Macleay Street Bistro's French onion soup. Photo: James Brickwood

"I find it's better to bring chefs through the ranks," he says. "If they start as chef de partie or sous it means they can learn about the bistro's DNA and what customers expect before going on to lead the kitchen."

Fernando Bravo was appointed head chef a year ago and the bloke knows his way around a sauce. A veal demi-glace bolstering rare Cootamundra lamb loin ($44) is reduced for 36 hours to become a lip-sticking meal in itself, a treat with its accompanying pea puree and carrots, and even better for swiping with fries ($10). You'll also want a handful of French shoestrings to ride shotgun with escargots de Bourgogne ($24) swimming in garlic and parsley butter. Snails are all well and good, of course, but a chip dipped in butter is transcendent.

"Sydney is awash with brasseries that are no such things and bistros that are really got-up restaurants," wrote Herald food critic Leo Schofield about Macleay Street Bistro in 1987. "This bistro really is a bistro."  

Escargots de Bourgogne at MSB.
Escargots de Bourgogne at MSB. Photo: James Brickwood

It's a sentiment that rings true 31 years later (especially the part about too many bistros that are really got-up restaurants). The more that food trends flash and fade, the more comforting Macleay Street Bistro and its soup become. 

Est. 1987 (formerly Scoffs Bistro)

Signature dishes French onion soup ($20); grass-fed eye fillet steak tartare ($28/42); steak frites with rocket and green pear salad ($38); creme brulee ($16).

Bob Carr (left), Julieanne Newbould, Helena Carr and former Australian prime minister Paul Keating at Macleay Street ...
Bob Carr (left), Julieanne Newbould, Helena Carr and former Australian prime minister Paul Keating at Macleay Street Bistro in 2010.  Photo: Simon Alekna

Celebrity diners Ita Buttrose, Paul Keating, Toni Collette, Bob Carr.