Burbury High Tea 2017 Masthead
Bria Sydney

What Goes Up

Tiffany Bonasera

Our growing appetite for eating-out experiences in Canberra has given rise to new dining precinct, new industry players, and new concepts in food and wine.

A boon for punters, with more choice than ever before, Tiffany Bonasera speaks with industry insiders about whether the restaurant boom is sustainable in the capital. 

~

Socrates Kochinos has been in the Canberra restaurant business for 25 years. He believes the city’s dining scene is the “best it’s ever been”.

The industry stalwart, who owns and runs some of the capital’s most iconic eateries, including Belluci’s and Grease Monkey, says increasing competition is testing the imagination of restaurateurs, which is amazing for consumers.

“The diversity and quality of dining in Canberra is improving day by day, and the competition is making everyone lift their standards and push the boundaries of what they offer,” he says.

Like Socrates, Bria Sydney (pictured) has been
 at the forefront of the city’s dining transformation. The Canberra native started Knightsbridge Penthouse and Elk & Pea Eating House, and now director at Parlour, located in the popular NewActon precinct. She is equally complimentary about the high quality of restaurants in the region – a response to our changing attitude to eating out.

“Canberrans were not used going out, but that has changed in the last five years,” she says, “It does have a lot to do with the fact that 15 years ago, we didn’t have that many places to go out—that mindset is shifting. I think it is unfair for Canberra to still have that stigma.”

Statistically speaking, we’ve shrugged
 off the stigma. Research shows we are 
the nation’s highest spenders on food
 and beverage. John Hart, chief executive officer, Restaurant and Catering Australia (R&CA), says we are an affluent market, and businesses are capitalising.

“In the ACT, a larger proportion of earnings is spent on eating out,” he says. “Because disposable incomes are higher, more businesses want to get into it. New businesses should analyse opportunities carefully, and not overestimate the Canberra market.”

Mezzalira

Mezzalira

Pasquale Trimboli, a 20-plus-year industry veteran and owner of Mezzalira Ristorante and Italian and Sons, says while we
 now have more diversity on the dining scene, there is still only a handful of good restaurants to choose from.

“I am referring to the basics that are a common factor to all good restaurants – good food and good service,” he says. “I am predicting more closures than openings in the next three years. We have reached a point of saturation, where we need to look at quality over quantity.”

Unlike their counterparts in Sydney 
and Melbourne, the nation’s traditional foodie powerhouses, local restaurateurs rely on regular clientele, not tourists, to thrive—and they’re the hardest to please, according to Pasquale.

“The strategy we have adopted is to not worry about new restaurants, but rather review our own operations with a true and honest appraisal on where to improve,” he says. “By doing this, you focus on your own efforts, rather than worrying about someone else.”

Bria agrees self-reflection is the key to longevity in the hospitality game.

“It is like fashion, you have to be able to adapt, while also focusing on what you can do well,” she says. “Places which fail, try 
to be everything to everyone—and forget to focus on doing one thing really well. At Parlour, we slowly and slightly tweak things to keep up-to-date with what’s going on.”

Currently, there is strong demand for local produce from the capital’s culinary crowd —a trend which pleases most chefs, who can change up menus with fresh, seasonal ingredients. Given we have award-winning food and wine producers are on our doorstep, it’s a natural fit.

“We need to work together more closely with local producers to create our own culinary identity in Canberra. Less quantity and more quality, and the food scene will start to become noticed by other capital cities in a different light,” says Pasquale.

Grease Monkey

Grease Monkey

While consumers are revelling in a feast of choice across Canberra, restaurateurs are realistic about what it will take to survive.

“I would say the biggest dilemma owners face is overheads—the cost of rent and staff is escalating, it is getting harder for some people to open up their doors,” says Socrates. “Owners will have to get creative in terms of how they are going to run their businesses.”

The consensus is, generic food businesses are not going to cut it. Bria predicts we will see more casual, high-quality restaurants pop up in the suburbs because “people want to be able to walk to their local.” Socrates concurs intimate eateries in the suburbs will make a comeback.

“The successful businesses will be owner- operated—smaller, boutique businesses,” he says.

According to Bria, Canberra is calling for mixed-business enterprises, along similar lines to The Grounds of Alexandria in Sydney and The Farm in Byron Bay, which serve up much more than a dining experience—bring people and communities together.

Nik Bulum, who is credited for leading the rejuvenation of Lonsdale Street, describes the criticism, and ultimate shutdown, 
of his plans to turn the Canberra City Bowls Club site in Ainslie into a mixed-use commercial precinct as a “lost opportunity” for the community.

The Braddon developer’s proposed concept, or “village within a suburb”— featuring a restaurant, a resort-style 
pool, outdoor cinema, day spa and boutique hotel—aligns with his trademark experimental approach, and underpins the way forward.

“We can sustain the growth, if we keep doing things differently—and stop comparing ourselves to Sydney and Melbourne,” he says. “We have high-quality restaurants; it’s the standard now.”

However, Nik believes the situation could turn sour if plans to relocate our public servants go ahead, and the government continues to force the inclusion of mixed-use retail and commercial spaces in new developments because “you can’t have a precinct on every corner”.

“Braddon has taken 10 years to get where it is today, and it’s still going,” Nik says. “I think we have to cater to what is needed— and let it happen more organically, without being forced.”

R&CA’s John Hart is confident the growth is sustainable, noting there has never been a backwards trend in the number of people eating out, and how much they spend. On the other hand, local restauranteurs sense a plateau is on the cards.

Time will tell how these predictions will play out. What we do know is Canberra’s dining scene will continue to evolve, as competition intensifies—and it’s keeping restaurant owners on their toes, as they battle it out to secure the upper hand in providing authentic eating-out experiences.

And it’s Canberra’s dining punters who are on a winner.

Photography: Martin Ollman

This article originally appeared in Magazine: Future for Winter 2017, available for free while stocks last. Find out more about Magazine here

HC_02043_Magazine_9_WEB_1_cover

user

Tiffany Bonasera

Tiffany Bonasera is a Canberra-based journalist and copywriter. She is intensely curious by the stories people and brands have to tell, and feels grateful to be in a position to articulate them through her writing. She values the flexibility of her career, as she enjoys being engaged in her girls’ school community. Tiffany believes resilience is one of her greatest strengths (a skill acquired after working in newsrooms for many years), but concedes she is ridiculously bad at reverse parking (in fact, any parking). Thankfully, being resilient gets her out of most tight spots. More about the Author

FFFM Leaderboard