Last Sunday, Melbourne chef Andrew McConnell enjoyed his first proper restaurant meal since June. On Wednesday he was still buzzing.
“I had a 10pm sitting at the Carlton Wine Room,” says the Cumulus Inc owner. “I was just blissed out; it was gold. Just to be going out again, seeing friends, eating great food. I’ve missed it so much.”
It’s a timely reminder that chefs and restaurateurs are avid diners, too. And they’re probably even more excited to be coming out of lockdown than the rest of us.
But the first tentative steps out of a second round of restrictions that left the industry on its knees aren’t exactly soundtracked by a symphony of popping champagne corks.
Restaurant owners are experiencing something close to the Kubler-Ross stages of grief. There’s excitement, naturally, but it’s mixed with nervousness, trepidation and the sheer exhaustion of a grinding 10 months.
And the industry has a gentle message for any diner anticipating a post-pandemic bounce-back to the way things were: Please check your expectations at the door as restaurants adopt tactics such as set menus and sitting times, pre-paid dining and handling a multitude of bookings with military precision.
The cellar door bistro at Yarra Valley winery Dominique Portet is a case in point. Pre-COVID it offered an a la carte menu of French family classics. Yesterday it reopened with a three-course prix fixe menu served at two sitting times.
The rationale is double-barrelled, says manager Ben Portet: to streamline the process for the kitchen as it gets back into gear, as well as make the most of sitting times of just under two hours.
“People have to make enough decisions in their daily life at the moment. This way they can just enjoy their time with friends and family and not have to worry about discussing what to eat. My wife loves the fact I won’t be able to sit and read the wine list for 30 minutes anymore.”
Such tactics might ring with novelty, but Portet is in lockstep with much of the industry in his belief that dining out is going to be a different beast for the foreseeable future.
“Eating out is going to have to be a lot more structured and pre-planned than before. People are getting in touch already to book their small group at Christmas. It’s people like me who aren’t that organised who will really have to change their ways.”
If only a fraction of Melburnians celebrate the ring of steel’s demise by heading beyond the `burbs, the regions are about to be very busy indeed. But restrictions on diner numbers remains something restaurants have to explain to a public not always across the fine print.
“When Melbourne was still locked down, and we were only dealing with regional visitors, guests kept hearing the announcement of 40 people indoors but not that there could only be 10 per space,” says Alla Wolf-Tasker, of Daylesford’s Lake House. “We were constantly having to explain why the dining room was so empty.”
Another juggling act comes in the form of outside dining. It’s a saviour in theory, but rain doesn’t stop because the tuna carpaccio has been served. “Our terraces overlooking the lake are beautiful, but we can’t guarantee outside bookings,” says Wolf-Tasker. “Yesterday was 32 degrees and it’s pouring today.”
The phone hasn’t stopped ringing at Brunswick’s Cornish Arms Hotel since the end of Lockdown 2.0. Melbourne’s tribe of vegans are becoming increasingly desperate to eat KFC (Korean fried cauliflower) at one of their favourite haunts.
“One guy dialled 145 times,” says owner Anthony Foster: “He screenshotted it and sent it to our socials page.”
The difference between lockdowns one and two is palpable, he says; not only because restaurateurs who wildly celebrated that brief window in June are now a little more gun-shy, but because the eagerness of people to re-embrace “normal” life is so overwhelming.
“We’re trying to please everyone,” he says. “The only way to deal with it until more seats open up is by limiting sitting times, having someone manning the bookings line constantly and streamlining the menu a bit. We haven’t got the rooftop kitchen going at the moment, so the staff are getting pretty tired running up and down the stairs.”
Back in Melbourne’s CBD, Andrew McConnell is looking forward to the announcement of one diner per four square metres – the trigger for the reopening of his restaurant Gimlet at Cavendish House, which served diners for a grand total of three weeks between lockdowns.
He had toyed with the idea of a set menu but he’s now putting faith in diners to remember their best restaurant manners.
“I’m not having prepaid [dining], I’m going full a la carte. I want to have that sense of flexibility and spontaneity with the menu. It won’t be exactly the same, but I want it to be as close as possible.”
The new restaurant etiquette
So you’ve made a booking? Make sure you turn up.
Don’t linger over your allocated time.
Children take up valuable seats with no real spend – book a babysitter instead.
Be understanding of restaurant limitations as they fine-tune their systems.