Neighbourhood dining is where the city’s at

While Sydney and Melbourne’s central business districts remain quieter than restaurateurs would like, neighbourhoods are thriving.

“I’m not at all flat about the future,” says City of Sydney independent councillor Jess Miller.

“While the CBD has quietened considerably, my observation is that the suburban villages are pumping. Local coffee shops, local restaurants, high streets – particularly butchers, grocers and independent outlets – seem to be doing very well.

“My observation is the [venues] that have been first to experiment and have already invested in their community have been the ones that are doing really well.”

Clayton Wells, head chef of Chippendale restaurant Automata, says diners have shown a real love and appreciation for their local venues. “The restaurant hopping that Sydney is famous for has slowed,” he says. “There are less restaurants opening constantly, obviously, but people have a better appreciation of small business.”

Phones out at the table

When Kim Teo started putting QR codes on menus in 2018, many people told her the data-storing squares were dead; apps were the way of the future, especially for ordering food in-venue.

“Of course, that’s all changed with COVID,” says the co-founder and chief executive of Mr Yum, a web-based ordering company for restaurants that has grown 25 times in size over the past 12 months.

Diners use their phone to scan a QR code, which opens a platform to order food, split bills, and finalise the tab using Apple or Google Pay.

“January has stayed as strong as December for us, even though it’s a traditionally quieter month in hospitality,” says Teo. “At The Grounds of Alexandria in Sydney, more than 60 per cent of sales are now through Mr Yum.”

Mr Yum is joined by other platforms developed in Australia, including HungryHungry and me&u, which are leading the way in contactless ordering technology, says Teo.

“Australia opened up from COVID-19 before the UK and US and now the rest of the world is eagerly watching what we’re doing in the dining space.”

And it seems like the move towards hi-tech dining is only going to gather pace.

$50 is all you need to have a good time

Michael Bascetta, co-founder of Melbourne hospitality collaboration space Worksmith, Falco bakery, Capitano pizzeria, and Bar Liberty reckons the sweet spot for dining out is at the $50 mark.

“There’s only going to be a certain number of people who really want to dig deep, financially. But at Capitano, we have found the $40-$50 total head spend has gone crazy,” he says.

“We’ve never been busier. And I think that speaks volumes about that price point and what experience people really want to go out and have.”

The Hassel is back, baby

Is there a better sauce-catching vehicle than a spud sliced and fanned to look like a Slinky? Nope, we don’t think there is. First created in Sweden in 1953, the Hasselback potato is making a comeback across the country, from restaurants such as Sydney’s Ester, where it’s supercharged by spud skin dashi, to Launceston’s Stillwater, where it sits pretty in ‘nduja butter.

2021 is the year of disruptive collaboration

While lots of chefs dropped out of hospitality altogether during 2020, plenty have stuck with it and are forging their own paths, popping up in other people’s restaurants, hosting two-night takeovers in bars and collaborating with gin, gelato and beer companies.

There are more opportunities than ever for young chefs who are willing to make unconventional choices. Check out the rolling guest chef list at Sydney CBD bar PS40, or the program at Melbourne’s Worksmith.

The rise and rise of plant-based everything

Sick of seeing mince made from mushrooms in the meat section? Tired of chicken-free chook? Done with vegan mayo? Too bad. Plant-based products are only set to become more popular.

The vegan ice-cream industry was estimated to be worth $US520 million ($A683 million) globally in 2019 and is expected to hit $US805 million by 2027, says Allied Market Research.

“Last year we saw an 11 per cent increase in sales of our vegan meals, and we don’t see that trend slowing down,” says Rolf Weber, chief executive of meal kit delivery service Marley Spoon Australia. “Our research shows the rise isn’t from people becoming vegans. It’s from consumers concerned with their health and wellness and eating more plant-based meals between meat dishes.”

Convenience is king

Speaking of Marley Spoon, the global company’s Australian arm reported second- and third-quarter growth of 170 per cent in 2020, buoyed by lockdowns and the ongoing rise of e-commerce.

“The adoption of online, direct-to-consumer channels is up significantly,” says Weber.

There are now more than 30 ready-made or cook-your-own meal delivery services in Australia, each assuring consumers they won’t have to work hard for a healthy dinner.

New player PreppedFresh will launch to market in the next few weeks, also promising convenience, but with flash frozen, pre-chopped ingredients.

“Australians are hungry for the convenience meal kits tend to offer, but they can still take a long time to cook with all the preparation involved,” says PreppedFresh founder Isabelle Dunn.

“Everyone likes to cook, but few people enjoy the chores of scrubbing, peeling and chopping, especially at the end of a long day.”

Rather than Birds Eye-style bags of frozen cauliflower and other sides, PreppedFresh will offer a weekly starter kit with recipe cards and common cooking ingredients such as garlic, parsley, onion, pumpkin and carrot.

“I hope it can lead to a reduction in household food waste,” says Dunn. “It’s so frustrating when you do a weekly shop on Sunday, and your vegetables are beginning to perish in the crisper by Tuesday.”

Collins is an advocate for any service that makes vegetables more accessible. “Research through COVID-19 showed Australians cooked more at home and increased their vegetable intake,” she says. “That’s a positive thing we really want to hang on to.”

It’s time to embrace the wing

Keen for a fillet of salmon for dinner tonight? Consider using a salmon wing – plenty of flavour, and a quarter of the price.

Getting a little more savvy about the species and cut of fish we buy is the key to keeping the cost of seafood in our shopping baskets down.

“Mainstream species will become more expensive,” says John Susman, CEO of seafood marketing company Fishtales. “We are already seeing that. The answer is to be more experimental, more egalitarian. If we were to consider other species – sardines, hoke, redfish or blackspot trevally – or even other cuts (wings and fins and tails are delicious eating), it’s sustainability in action. We seem to shy away from them as we did pork belly even 30 years ago.”

(Fish wings at Flotilla in Newcastle)

Restaurant delivery is still a thing

If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that hospitality proved time and again how incredibly flexible and quick to change tack it could be. And while many high-end restaurants dropped their delivery services as soon as they were able to open the doors to welcome back customers, some have incorporated it into their business models and are reporting the demand is as strong as ever. Melbourne-based Shane Delia intends to grow his delivery platform, Providoor, which delivers food from some of Victoria’s greatest venues, into a national business, bringing Sydney and Brisbane into the fold over time.

That’s great news for customers who are keen to keep supporting their favourite restaurants but may not have the capacity to get through the doors yet.

Local lovin’

Coming out of the pandemic, Australians have a higher preference for locally made products that they know and trust, says Mintel analyst Jolene Ng.

“Consumers are anxious about product sourcing and quality, and this is reflected in how they define ‘good value’.”

Supermarkets are now selling local seafood traditionally destined for China and overseas markets, for example, while Marley Spoon has moved to only use Australian-grown tinned tomatoes in its meal kits.

“The demand for transparency is important and increasing,” says Weber.

“Customers want to know more than ever what’s in their food and its provenance – from the ingredients in a spice mix to the source of their fish.”

Farm-fresh ingredient boxes are enjoying increased sales too, at least for Georgie Neal, founder of Sift Produce in Sydney.

“If you want to talk about ‘good value’, I believe it comes down to buying local produce grown with flavour in mind. That could mean different varieties of vegetables, or produce picked within one or two days of when the customer receives it for high nutrient density.”

Aligning with Australians’ growing desire for convenience, Neal says produce boxes and super fresh food can also affect the way a person cooks.

“You don’t have to do much to a vegetable grown in really good soil by a great local farm. Cooking it can be faster than fast-food – a bit of salt and butter or oil and happy days.”


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