Refettorio looks and feels the same as many hip cafes in Surry Hills, but the place is not serving smashed avocado for brunch and its regular customers rarely have disposable incomes.

Since opening in February, the community restaurant has welcomed people in need through its doors for free three-course lunches.

Run by food rescue organisation OzHarvest, about 300 people a week are served at the restaurant.

Social worker Katrina Humble says Refettorio is about trying to give people respect and dignity.

“When you’re a bit down on your luck or not feeling great, you don’t feel like going out to a restaurant,” she said.

“Coming here … gives them a sense of dignity, that they’re valued.”

A woman wearing an apron smiles in front of an open window looking on to a leafy street
Ms Humble says Refettorio offers a safe space for people to grow confidence.(ABC Radio Sydney: Rosemary Bolger)

Ms Humble says a lot of the people who come to Refettorio are homeless and sometimes do not feel safe approaching a soup kitchen.

“They feel safe in here. It’s their safe place,” she said.

“So because of that and [the] food, they sit, they connect, and they start talking.”

The outside of a restaurant with a wooden door and window frames
OzHarvest hopes to provide a dignified dining experience through its restaurant.(Supplied: OzHarvest)

Fostering social bonds

Customers are encouraged to stick around for a three-course meal and take time to connect with other customers and volunteers.

Restaurant manager Nicole Khoury says people are often shy when they first come to the restaurant, but then go on to arrange regular lunch dates in the space.

“Now they have somewhere to go for a meal but also for social connection,” she said.

A young woman wearing an apron smiles inside a dimly lit restaurant
Refettorio restaurant manager Nicole Khoury wants customers to feel respected.(ABC Radio Sydney: Rosemary Bolger)

A ‘happy place to be’

Tom regularly meets with a group every Wednesday for lunch and says the staff “really go all out” to make something special.

“It is an opportunity for people who need a little bit of financial assistance to have a really beneficial meal,” Tom said.

“I’ve shared some time with people that are becoming friends … it’s just a happy place to be.”

Stephen also regularly goes to Refettorio on Wednesdays to meet with friends and appreciates the social benefits of meeting in such a public place.

“We will catch up, and we’ll be social,” he said.

“It’s really good for your mental health, and our wellbeing.”

Grounded in generosity

While lunch service is for people in need, paying customers can also dine at Refettorio at fortnightly dinners to help fund the project.

Diners are served gourmet meals prepared using ingredients rescued by OzHarvest that otherwise would go to landfill. 

Three plates of food. A salad is being cut by a person holding a knife and fork towards the back of the photo.
Some customers would not usually have access to the experience offered at Refettorio.(ABC Radio Sydney: Rosemary Bolger)

Giving is an integral part of Refettorio. The restaurant’s furniture, cutlery and crockery have also been donated to the project.

“It’s really nice to be able to tell our customers that everything you see here has been donated,” Ms Khoury said.

“But at the same time, it’s really great to connect with the supporters, and share that something they’ve donated really has had a huge impact on somebody’s life.”