By Jenny Hewett
May 31, 2021
WANDER THROUGH SYDNEY’S HISTORIC The Rocks district on a Sunday at lunchtime right now and you’ll likely feel two conflicting emotions. Firstly, an overwhelming sense of gratitude, and then a twinge of guilt. Truth is, if you arrived in Sydney from outer space at this strange moment in time, you’d know nothing of the pandemic that is gripping the rest of the world. Mask-less diners spill out of cafes and congregate at sizzling market stalls, they gather at pubs and beer gardens over meals in gregarious Aussie fashion. It’s bittersweet, but Sydneysiders know they are lucky in that life feels normal for the time-being.
The last year was challenging, with restaurants here, like most places, suffering, side-stepping, switching to home deliveries and takeaway. Some businesses sadly didn’t make it. These days, short and sharp “snap” lockdowns have become a part of life, indoor-capacity limits make bookings harder to come by and there are mandatory COVID check-ins at each venue. But Sydney’s hospo industry has bounced back something sweet.
For a long time in Sydney, it wasn’t so much about what you ate as where you ate it. Views naturally form the cultural blueprint of this harbor city and tables tucked in the Opera House and ritzy beachside setups had come to define what made the dining here so Sydney.
Location still has its place in dining rooms here, but over the last few years, there has been a shift away from the perfect and precise. Chefs are championing innovation, creativity and authenticity. And the trend for niche concepts, such as omakase, mezcal bars, street food and rustic cooking, has brought diners back into Sydney’s urban heart. Despite the disruption of last year, a handful of Sydney chefs and restaurateurs have shown what delicious success you can achieve when you just keep cooking.
Here are 10 new Sydney restaurants that bravely opened during the pandemic and have continued to prosper. I hope you’re hungry.
Michelin-starred executive chef Matteo Vignotti might helm this opulent new Italian fine-diner via Zoom (he’s been stuck in Italy since March 2020), but Australia-based head chef Giovanni Astolfoni is a mighty fine right-hand man. Occupying a heritage-listed bank in the CBD, the space is all Venetian extravagance, dressed-up in towering marble columns and Jarrah panelling. The dishes are equally ornate, from the cicchetti Venetian snacks of beef tartare with parmesan crisp to the tortelli cacio e pepe with sweetbreads.
setasydney.com.au; A$185 prix fixe
This no-expense-spared Coogee Pavilion eatery from the much-lauded Merivale Group opened just before the world paused in January 2020. But Sydney’s bougie set have been practically banging down the doors with their stilettos ever since. Think caviar ‘bumps’ to the tune of A$32 (served by trolley onto one’s fist and washed down with chilled vodka), barbecued blacklip abalone, vintage booze and the show-stopping, salt-baked mud crab.
merivale.com/venues/mimis; from A$300 for two
Part of the pioneering Sydney dining scene since 2013, this once-moody food and wine extraordinaire moved to a new lighter, brighter venue in the CBD in late 2020. Its latest iteration is a pared-back take on French bistronomy, with a well-honed wine list from rockstar sommelier Nick Hildebrandt, plus bites such as glazed pork neck with pickled grapes, kale and celeriac. Despite re-opening during COVID, this oft-awarded diner is still feeding legions of its loyal followers.
monopolesydney.com.au; from A$150 for two
4. Chi by Lotus
This new casual eatery in the waterside Barangaroo district is serving up Chinese street food, shared plates and skewered delights with native twists. Inspired by the night markets on Beijing’s Ghost Street, the space from Sydney’s renowned Lotus Dining Group opened late last year with creative dishes like deep-fried salt bush with spicy mayo, and focaccia with Asian-inspired oil, alongside ice-cold Tsingtao beer. In a setting furnished with rows of waving lucky cats, the red hue of their Chinese-inspired negroni is a perfect fit.
lotusdininggroup.com/chibylotus; from A$69 for prix fixe banquet
5. Balsa Dining Room
It’s a big call, but the smoky, silken chargrilled calamari here is one of the most exquisite dishes we’ve eaten in Sydney all year. The iconic Harbord Hotel pub in Freshwater, known to locals as ‘Freshie,’ on Sydney’s northern beaches, had a glow-up this year, and everything about it feels au courant and geographically relevant. Balsa’s flare is a refined take on pub classics and their flatbreads (think spiced prawn, smoked cheek bacon and feta bell peppers) are already crowd favorites.
harbordhotel.com.au; from A$80 for two people
Melbourne gets all the laneway cred but this new well-hidden two-story gem represents Sydney stepping up. Set down Temperance Lane in the CBD, the concept is mezcal bar meets traditional Mexican restaurant. The basement feels a little bit Once Upon a Time in Mexico, with flickering candles, mariachi tunes and a unique display of tequila bottles. Choose from an impressive array of margaritas and less-cliche eats of citrusy kingfish ceviche with watermelon sorbet and wagyu beef tartare taco.
estebanrestaurant.com.au; A$89 prix fixe
From the team behind Porteno and Bodega comes this new Surry Hills eatery hero-ing old-school Italian fare. The restaurant is an ode to Italy in the 60s, complete with orange lino floor and cans of Italian tomatoes. The menu is an homage to the chefs’ Sicilian and Argentinian roots and features spaghetti with nduja and clams, Chianti octopus, an extensive Iist of Italian wines, plus limoncello made in-house.
bastardosydney.com; from A$130 for two
8. Saint Peter
Chef Josh Niland is a pioneer in culinary sustainability and his seafood-only concept champions local fish. The hatted Paddington venue bravely re-opened in the thick of COVID midway in 2020 with a revamped menu and fresh look, including a marbled bar counter that seats just 22. Niland and his team use the whole fish, including the offal, and each dish on the menu, such as the 14-day dry-aged Murray cod served with a salt-and-vinegar seasoned head, features the name of the person who caught it. The epitome of fisherman-to-table, indeed.
saintpeter.com.au; A$155 prix fixe
9. Kuon Omakase
A big tilt of the hat goes to this intimate high-end omakase sushi joint in Darling Square. The tiny space, which seats just 11, opened in June 2020 and has been booked out months in advance ever since. Restaurateur Kenny Lee and co-owner and chef Hideaki Fukada are the team behind the weekly changing 20-course set menu featuring premium imported Japanese produce, such as unagi and Kumamoto oysters. Stalk the ‘gram for real-time booking updates, @kuon.omakase. Just doublecheck your phone is waterproofed against the inevitable drool.
kuon.com.au; A$200 prix fixe
10. Tempura Kuon
Why stop when you’re onto a good thing? Kuon Omakase’s sister restaurant opened in March this year and it’s equally niche and compact. The 10-seater timber space in Haymarket is dedicated entirely to tempura. And when that’s means everything is fried in a cold-pressed sesame oil that costs a whopping A$450 for 20 liters and is changed for each service, we call that serious dedication. Expect between 14 and 17 courses of lightly battered exotic vegetables, scallops and even a sea urchin egg wrapped in shiso leaf.
tempurakuon.com.au; A$230 prix fixe
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