In a statement of faith in Melbourne’s Central Business District, celebrity chef Karen Martini is opening an all-day restaurant at Federation Square early in the New Year. Hero is part of a $40 million revamp of the Australian Centre for the Moving Image: both will throw open their doors on February 11.

The 150-seat restaurant and bar is part of a suite of catering offerings from Ms Martini and business partner Michael Gebran under their new HospitalityM banner. “It’s thrilling,” she says. “There’s a cinema where we can have a table of 30 watching a film while they eat; we can have dining immersed in an exhibition space; and the main event area seats 140 and overlooks Federation Square.”

Good Food magazine cover 100 Good Things - Your guide to summer's best eating & drinking.
Good Food magazine cover 100 Good Things – Your guide to summer’s best eating & drinking. Photo: Supplied

Karen Martini has never run a city restaurant before but she’s planning to move on from her St Kilda stalwart Mr Wolf as part of a shift in focus from bayside to the city grid. “I’ve had 17 years at Mr Wolf and we had the Melbourne Wine Room [at St Kilda’s George Hotel] from 1996,” she says. “It’s time to move to a new landscape. The city is somewhere we’ve always wanted to come and play.”

But in a COVID-normal Melbourne, what will the city be like? “COVID has definitely changed the landscape but hospitality, arts and culture are the tapestry of Melbourne,” she says. “It’s important to invest in the city: in new places as well as the older places that make this city so rich.”

She’s confident that Melbourne will bounce back. “The CBD is a bit sleepy but I know we’ll get there, as a city and in terms of greeting people from other states,” she says. “I hope we can pick up on the momentum of renewal and be part of it. Victoria has a lot to offer with our produce, our creativity, our talent.”

When it comes to talent though, Ms Martini has the same lament as every other hospitality operator in the state: skilled workers are hard to come by.

“I have 28 chef jobs to fill and there are no staff,” she says. Internationals have left the country, many people have moved interstate, and others have had a COVID-inspired rethink. “People in the industry have discovered a life outside hospitality, being at home at night, work-life balance, but hopefully when we pick up momentum again we’ll find people are ready to come back to work,” she says.

Ms Martini gets the keys to the space next week and will prepare the kitchen over the summer break. “I’ll be setting things up from scratch, pickling, fermenting, tinkering away,” she says. “I’m incredibly excited to get in there.”

Urban renewal – what else is happening?

Future Food System: Joost Bakker’s eco-home for chefs Matt Stone and Jo Barrett includes a fish farm stocked with barramundi and yabbies. Riverside, Federation Square.

Nick & Nora’s: A menu of more than 50 champagnes is a highlight at this fancy bar, one of the foundation tenants of the new 80 Collins development. Chris Lucas’s SOCIETY with Martin Benn and Vicki Wild will open at the development in autumn. 80 Collins Street via 11 Benson Walk, Melbourne.

Gimlet at Cavendish House: Andrew McConnell’s ambitious and grand new restaurant offers classic cocktails and traditional caviar service. 33 Russell Street, Melbourne.

Chancery Lane: Scott Pickett (Matilda, Estelle) used the pandemic to pick up a couple of new restaurants. He reopened Longrain and is reimagining the Vue Group’s Iki Jime as Chancery Lane, a French restaurant with ex-Quay chef Rob Kabboord at the helm. 430 Little Collins Street, Melbourne.

Musou: This Sichuan stir-fry restaurant launched via delivery in Melbourne’s early COVID days and has now opened with two dine-in locations. The specialty is mala xiang guo, a spicy stir-fry with choose-your-own ingredients. 398 Elizabeth Street & 208 Little Bourke Street, Melbourne.

King William Takeaway: This hole-in-the-wall sandwich joint makes getting back to the office an appealing proposition with sangers like the Tony Baloney with fried mortadella, olive jam and melted provolone.