In 1992, Lynch’s restaurant in South Yarra famously turned away an infant-toting couple and wound up facing court. The debate divided the city so deeply you can understand why publicans, cafe owners and restaurateurs are biting nails at how customers might react to rules they have to put in place when they open on Monday.
While operators and diners are excited to be moving towards normal operation, phase one regulations include some sticky stipulations likely to cause friction between customers and casual venues such as pubs and cafes.
These include the requirement that all drinks must accompany a “proper meal”, eaten sitting down. While Victorians are craving a parma, publicans fear they will face backlash from those keen to drop in for a leisurely pint.
Joe Durrant and his business partners took the lay of the land for six months before taking over the Paradise Valley Hotel in Emerald last year, knowing the sense of ownership people have for their local. He thinks the challenge will be giving front bar-loving regulars the experience they’ve been dreaming of, while keeping staff feeling safe.
Durrant has no plans to enforce a set menu, saying, “the model isn’t built around forcing people down that avenue.” He’s banking on natural turnover. “I think some people just want that contact and they can have a $20 meal, or there will be a lavish offering for customers who want more.”
Trickier still is the rule that all children, even infants, count towards a venue’s precious 20 customer quota, placing operators in a financial bind.
David Wickwar, manager for Vaporetto restaurant in Hawthorn, says they will be operating at just 30 per cent capacity under phase one regulations, but it was important to welcome families. “Our takeaway business has thrived during lockdown and it has been families that supported us,” he said.
Vaporetto has taken a proactive approach, offering families an early sitting, and a set price menu of $85 for adults and $40 for children, as they might for high-demand events such as Mother’s Day.
While parents may be prepared for this from a restaurant, what they mightn’t consider is that pubs and cafes are under the same restrictions, , and that lingering over a coffee or sharing meals with children may be devastating for the bottom line.
Paul Waterson – CEO of the Australia Venues Co, which operates the Middle Park Hotel, the Imperial and O’Connells in South Melbourne – says he remembers the fuss around Lynch’s ban on children and says “we don’t ever want to be that”.
Waterson’s venues are offering punters the chance to “book out the whole pub”, an option that has been taken up by several large families. Groups of up to 20 still have to be seated at tables of six each and cannot switch the arrangements under the guidelines, but they will have exclusive use of the space for two hours for $50 per person (young or old) including two drinks and a pub main each.
Most operators, including cafe mogul Nathan Toleman, founder of venues such as Common Ground and Liminal, say they are hoping for empathy in this early stage. Toleman says “cafes that rely on being busy will barely break even at this early stage”, and he hopes diners understand tables are for dining, not just a coffee. “That said, I think many venues will just be happy to have customers again.”
THE GOOD DINER’S GUIDE TO EATING OUT
Planning a family outing?
Even infants count towards a venue’s 20 seat capacity so you may be asked to pay a cover for small children, or bring the clan when restrictions loosen further on June 22. Restrictions also state children must stay seated for their full session. Good luck.
Fast and prompt
With severely restricted seating, restaurants are relying on fast turnover. You may be able to book lunch for only one hour, and if you are late, you might lose your space, and deposit.
If you book, show up. No-shows in Sydney restaurants have cost owners desperately needed funds.
All dine-in tables will be required to provide the first name and phone number of every guest for contact tracing. Venues must enforce the rule.
Bought a voucher to support your favourite venue? While operators are immensely grateful, consider cashing it in later when numbers are more robust.