For Australia’s restaurateurs – particularly those in Melbourne – the pandemic has required a big shot of resilience, layers of adaptability and more than a dash of optimism. By Lee Tran Lam.

Restaurants surviving the coronavirus

A 1970s-themed night at Ten Hats Bistro.
A 1970s-themed night at Ten Hats Bistro.
Credit: Eglė Januškevičius

For most of his career, it has been Ben Shewry’s skill as a chef that has been the focus. His Melbourne restaurant, Attica, first appeared on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants List in 2012. Hopeful diners would have to book nine months in advance. Despite its star power though, Attica – like many other restaurants – was hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Shewry felt the threat as early as January, when Chinese tourists were banned from entering Australia. “Forty per cent of Victoria’s international tourists are from China,” he says. “A lot of them come to Attica.” By March, as the country went into lockdown, things looked bleak. “The situation was, we’re going broke and we’ll all be out of work,” Shewry says. “I don’t want a bankruptcy against my name.”

Neither tourism nor accolades could save Attica, so the chef decided to drag out the guitar. “I’m one of the world’s worst guitar players,” he clarifies. But after Attica temporarily retired its $310-a-head menu, shifting to takeaway only, he delivered some of the orders himself, and even offered to play an at-home concert to a lucky group who ordered the more premium tasting menu option. Shewry’s performance, he admits, was “truly shocking”, but he was floored by the response – the group’s kids even came outside to watch the show. “They haven’t heard enough music yet to know the difference between good and bad,” says Shewry.

This impromptu concert reflects the chef’s approach in the face of so much uncertainty: have fun and don’t forget the community. “We need to be innovative in these times to survive as a company,” he says.

Thinking on its feet has seen Attica deliver countless birthday cakes during the lockdown, and stage a virtual party with The Avalanches. Shewry rises at 5am each Wednesday to make 180 litres of soup to feed out-of-work hospitality workers – many denied JobKeeper and other benefits because they are visa holders or simply weren’t employed for long enough before the pandemic struck to qualify.

None of these schemes made Shewry money, but they kept Attica’s 42 staff employed as Melbourne’s second lockdown stretched to more than 100 days. It’s something of a remarkable feat, considering the industry association, Restaurant & Catering Australia, says a third of hospitality jobs have disappeared and the sector has shrunk by $8 billion.

On Monday, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews announced that from 11.59pm on Tuesday, restaurants, cafes and bars would be allowed to welcome back patrons for the first time in months – albeit within strict Covid-safe regulations. Venues must provide four square metres per person, with a limit of 20 indoors and 50 outdoors. For an industry that’s been through so much this year, the news prompted relief and a scramble to prepare.

Khanh Nguyen, who runs Sunda in the city centre, was glad to hear the restrictions were lifting. “It’s been a long, painful lockdown,” he says. “It honestly feels like, between the first and second lockdown, I’ve opened three restaurants.”

At first, Nguyen offered takeaway versions of Sunda’s staff meals, before transitioning to Sunda EXP, selling finish-at-home dishes. When restrictions lifted briefly in June, a third of diners at Sunda chose the premium $185 menu, which the chef found heartening. That was until Melbourne went into another lockdown in July and the restaurant’s doors closed again.

Nguyen now plans to reopen Sunda and turn his Sunda EXP business into a pop-up eatery at The Hotel Windsor, where the restaurant’s kitchen is based.

Anchovy owner and chef Thi Le, meanwhile, can’t wait to leave Melbourne. Her restaurant in Richmond became Anchovy to Go during the pandemic, offering bánh mì through its takeaway-only menu. But when dine-in restrictions lifted in June, her business dropped by half “because people were just going away”, leaving the city a ghost town.

So Le is packing her bags for Bendigo. “Anchovy is going regional,” she says. Through November, she’ll run the restaurant as a pop-up at Melanie Chester’s Sutton Grange Winery. There, she can take advantage of the larger dining capacity that regional venues are allowed – 70 people outdoors and 40 people inside. It’s a big contrast to what’s possible in Melbourne under the new rules. “Anchovy can only seat eight people inside. And outside, it’s only two tables. For us, it’s not that much.”

In Sydney, life has ticked along as normal – well, Covid normal – for the past few months. Chef Paul Carmichael has grappled with how he can ensure Momofuku Seiōbo at The Star casino meets the Covid-safe rules while remaining warm and hospitable. “You can’t do that if the place is like a hospital,” he says.

His staff wear tie-dyed face masks, fitting for the restaurant’s Caribbean style. Diners fill in a good-humoured survey before their meal, which determines how extensively they want to interact with staff. Social distancing rules mean the restaurant’s capacity is down from 50 patrons to 20, so Seiōbo requires two tight seatings, with limited staff, starting at 5.45pm.

Carmichael serves a “welcome tower” of seven snacks to start, a dazzling way to limit the need for diner-staff interaction. He has decided to keep expensive ingredients on the menu – such as Tasmanian angasi oysters from Yvonne Young and Steve Leslie, who brought the slow-growing native species to market after it was nearly wiped out in the 1800s – while saving elsewhere, browning leftover coconut skins to produce ice-cream that tastes like toasted coconut.

As he explains, the chef’s resourcefulness comes from growing up in Barbados with limited food in the fridge, plus his recent spell out of work during Seiōbo’s March-July lockdown closure, where he survived on supermarket specials. “That’s the best way to cook, right, when your back is against the wall,” he says.

“I won’t lie, it’s really hard to be open in the CBD,” says Brent Savage. His Sydney eatery, Bentley Restaurant + Bar, is reporting only 30-40 per cent of normal trade, with people still working from home. Cirrus Dining, in Barangaroo, is even harder hit, with its neighbouring office blocks just 15 per cent full. Both restaurants are operating with reduced hours and staff, so Savage has pared back the “touches” on a plate by half, focusing on producing flavour more efficiently. He’s also bargaining more at markets.

With dine-in restrictions likely to remain for some time, restaurants face a tough future, particularly when JobKeeper payments begin to wind up next March. By then, Wes Lambert of Restaurant & Catering Australia predicts that “20-30 per cent” of hospitality businesses will have closed in the 12 months following the first March lockdown. The outlook, however, depends on where you are in Australia.

Tasmania has benefited from having only 230 coronavirus cases during the pandemic – but with borders closed for most of 2020, some businesses have struggled. Chris Chapple of Templo in Hobart says that before Covid-19, 90 per cent of his customers were from Melbourne and Sydney. “Tasmania, over the last 10 years, has really been built on tourism … but maybe there’s been, in hindsight, an over-reliance on tourism.” Acclaimed Hobart restaurant Franklin, once named the country’s sixth-best restaurant by The Australian Financial Review, was gone when the state’s restrictions lifted in May: the uncertainty over when mainland visitors could return was largely responsible for its closure.

“Without JobKeeper, we would not be surviving,” says Bianca Welsh, who runs Launceston’s Black Cow Bistro. Usually the restaurant would get 90 per cent of trade from Chinese tourists ordering Wagyu beef. Welsh also co-owns Stillwater restaurant and accommodation. She’s been busy maximising any revenue possible: bagging loose-leaf tea – “like a drug den” – and selling it and Stillwater’s minibar bottles. But the state’s new tourism campaigns, along with locals rallying to help her businesses, have left her feeling quietly optimistic. Another reason to feel hopeful: the Tasmanian government’s plan to keep borders closed until December has been revised, with visitors from low-risk areas – the ACT, Northern Territory, Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia and New Zealand – already welcome.

In Perth, when Young George Bar & Kitchen’s dine-in business vanished at the start of lockdown, Melissa Palinkas shifted to takeaway – “I’ve never made so many duck sausage rolls in my life” – and quarantine-hotel deliveries. The opening of her Ethos Deli + Dining Room was pushed back for months. “We’d be lying if we said it was easy, but we are very grateful that our restrictions are less severe than New South Wales and Victoria.” It means that while Young George is “almost back to normal”, Ethos is only able to have 20 diners at a time, “so we are not even breaking even”, Palinkas says.

Despite the ongoing uncertainty, new restaurants are still opening. Chris Chapple hopes to open a seaside venue by summer; Brett Savage’s Ria Pizza + Wine is scheduled for November. “That was a freight train that we couldn’t stop,” says Savage. Khanh Nguyen had planned to open Aru Dining in July, but it has been pushed backed to March 2021. He believes “things will get back to normal” by next year.

For Sydney chef Anna Ugarte-Carral, who was last year named the Josephine Pignolet Young Chef of the Year, the pandemic seemed like the right moment to move away from relying on traditional restaurants. The Ten Hats Bistro project has allowed her, along with her collaborators – Elizabeth Mitchell, the junior sous chef at Alberto’s Lounge; Ella Stening of Fabbrica; and screen producer Maddison Costello – to experiment with “one-night-only” restaurants, each with a completely different concept.

The group plans to continue Ten Hats Bistro, even as Covid-19 restrictions continue to ease – Ugarte-Carral says they want to take the idea beyond Sydney. “This isn’t a financial solution,” she qualifies. “We are trying to bring some fun back into dining.”

It’s an attitude Shewry shares, particularly as Attica needs international tourists to return before it can resume normal operations. “I don’t want to look back on this time of my life wishing that I’d never been through it,” he says. “We want to survive. I’d also say we’re really determined to have a good time as well.”

This piece was supported by funds from the Google News Initiative.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 31, 2020 as "Tables finally turn".

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