The hospitality industry has praised the NSW government’s surprise decision to lift to 50 the number of patrons allowed in restaurants, pubs and cafes from June 1. 

The current limit of 10 people means it is not economically viable for many fine dining restaurants to open. Expectations were the government’s next easing of restrictions would be to allow 20 people inside venues. 

Hotelier and Merivale Group chief executive Justin Hemmes said the move was “wonderful news”. 

The Oxford Tavern offers two-hour sessions for groups of 10.
The Oxford Tavern offers two-hour sessions for groups of 10. Photo: Janie Barrett

“We’ll be opening pretty much all of our venues and employing about 1000 people,” Mr Hemmes said. “To move to 20 wouldn’t result in an increase in employment because we wouldn’t have opened any more venues.”

Mr Hemmes said he was confident people would rush back into venues after such a long dry spell. 

“Based on what I’ve seen with the few venues we’ve opened with the 10 capacity, without a doubt they’ll be bouncing back – the response so far has been overwhelming.” 

Merivale owner Justin Hemmes plans to reopen most of his venues.
Merivale owner Justin Hemmes plans to reopen most of his venues. Photo: Louise Kennerley

Celebrity chef Neil Perry agreed, saying his Rockpool Dining Group would spend the weekend deliberating which restaurants would begin opening. 

“[Last] Friday was an avalanche of people trying to get 10 seats in their favourite place,” Mr Perry said. “It’s really fantastic to see the ramping up of the openings.

“I think Australia is outrageously well-placed to be so far in front of the curve it’s not funny.”

Chef Matt Moran said his Solotel restaurants including Aria and Barangaroo House would be “in the pipeline to reopen” under the loosened restrictions. 

Meanwhile, several restaurant owners are warning customers that prepaid bookings will become the norm after venues reported costly no-shows when they opened last weekend. 

Diners failing to arrive for their booking has long plagued the industry but with NSW restaurant capacities restricted to just 10 seats at a time due to social distancing, every no-show is a critical loss of revenue. 

Stewart Parsons spaces out his tables at Bronte Road Bistro.
Stewart Parsons spaces out his tables at Bronte Road Bistro. Photo: Edwina Pickles

The owners of Bondi’s Icebergs Dining Room and Bar, Banksii at Barangaroo, The Oaks hotel and Bronte Road Bistro are among those now asking customers to prepay for their meals and warn that it’s likely to remain a permanent measure. 

Last weekend at The Oaks in Neutral Bay three separate bookings fell through, including a group of five who went to another hotel and a couple who promised they were two minutes away but never showed up. 

“I was disappointed, I got a bit angry,” owner Andrew Thomas said. 

Now it’s a case of once bitten, twice shy with Mr Thomas charging $45 in advance for a two-course meal. Some people have baulked, but limited supply means the power dynamic has shifted.  

“We’re going to have the upper hand – it’s a privilege for people to come to our restaurant when we can only have 10 people.” 

Stewart Parsons had a similar experience at his Bronte Road Bistro on Sunday night when two groups failed to show. 

“That was a bit of a disaster,” said the owner-chef. Now the bistro is reluctantly charging $80 in advance for a three-course meal. “It seems crazy society has got to that level where you have to fill out a form [online] for a meal,” he said.

“It takes some of the romance off it. Those people who decide not to show up, they change it for everyone.”

Banksii at Barangaroo is preparing to re-open in June and owner Rebecca Lines is implementing credit card pre-authorisation after being spooked by stories of no-shows. 

“I think the industry really believed people would do the right thing,” she said. 

​”It’s not some kind of ill-will or money grab. Sometimes people think we’re greedy [but] I can’t quite understand it myself.”

Many fine dining restaurants already charge in advance but smaller and mid-tier restaurants have traditionally taken a more casual approach based on trust and goodwill. 

Ms Lines said the pay-in-advance model was no different to buying a theatre or concert ticket. 

“Every restaurant will have a similar policy. There will be some form of ensuring that they’re not left in the lurch, and suddenly left with food they have to pay a supplier for.

“It’s not that we’re here to wield power over any guest. We’re here for hospitality, but it’s about respect. If people are put off by that, perhaps they’re not the customers we want to have in.” 

Icebergs Dining Room and Bar and CicciaBella operator Maurice Terzini said with restaurants fighting for survival “it’s almost unethical for people not to turn up” for a booking. 

Bondi’s CicciaBella charges $2000 in advance for a group of 10, while Icebergs will also have mandatory pre-payment when its doors open after renovations are complete around August.

“If the consumer is going to take the piss, then don’t complain when there’s no restaurants in two years,” Terzini said. “If people get offended and it turns them off, get takeaway [and] stay at home.” 

All four restaurant owners said they would exercise discretion if people were genuinely unable to attend due to illness or other extenuating circumstances. 

With Callan Boys