eats, Food, restaurant, sydney

Sydney Dining in 2020 – Did a positive attitude result in positive dining? From Lockouts to Lockdowns and back. My COVID dining experience.

Well. What a year! After years of abuse in Sydney, a Global Pandemic was always going have a severe impact of the hospitality industry. In March, restaurants were empty as fear gripped the globe and everyone desperately tried to work out the virus. Being forced to close led many restaurants to re shape their business model. Then forced closures as the media pumped panic and fear, while politicians rode the wave to popularity, as slogans jammed positivity in commercial breaks. When Restaurants reopened it was at half capacity with more stringent cleaning, more costs and less customers.

Sydney has always been a tough market for hospitality. Real estate is amongst the most expensive in the world. Wages are also amongst the highest. And tax on alcohol is astronomical. Then, if you wanted to open a restaurant , you would have pass a probationary period of limited trading, such as no alcohol sales after 10 pm! All this means it’s very expensive to open a restaurant. Add some overzealous motivated religious politicians, soon, hospitality was blamed for violence on the street. There was a very successful transfer of street violence from Kings Cross to Newtown the whole time hospitality is taking the brunt of blame instead of aggression. With our former state leader about to face disgrace, Mike Baird retired, allowing hospitality in our city the chance to recover, not likely.

I’d read about Covid 19 in December 2019. A travel company sent me a warning about a flu from Northern China. Within weeks this company had banned all Chinese travellers. An extreme reaction I thought but then the resort I was travelling to has the potential to be more infectious than the Ruby Princess. A ski resort, in the middle of the Canadian Rockies, confined spaces in helicopters , reticulated air-conditioning , shared water bottles up the mountain.

Returning in March 2020 airports were on alert. I’d developed a cough as a result of freezing cold weather and the legality of marijuana in California, Colorado and Canada. Coughing in airports and on the airplane was already shunned. As usual, I was obsessed with getting Chinese or Thai food on my return. Kingpin Sydney chef Dan Hong was already appealing for customers to not abandon Chinese food as he saw reservations plummet at Mr Wong. Nobody knew anything and assumed the worst, restaurants were empty and getting desperate. I’d just endured several weeks of high altitude dining and was ready for some of my favourite Sydney food.  Spice I am, yes, Mr Wong, yew, Nomad, yay. At Chin Chin, Jacquie Chancellor, Nomad Chef,  sent me a message thanking me for still dining out! Coughing at Mr Wong in March cleared the next table!

Squid from Nomad

Soon Restaurants were forced to close. Personally, I’d already left Sydney. I’d spent several hours on the phone organising a flight home from London for my son. The hotel in London where he worked had issued no Covid warnings. That ignorance was a concern. Then I remembered my wife’s 90 YO dad was staying with us and made South Coast plans. Restaurants soon moved to a take away model.

Arriving to house with a defrosted fridge is never fun. When every sausage, slice of bread and bit of mince is defrosted weeks ago, buying supplies when voluntary rationing was also a test in patience. The funniest was a ban on vinegar, I was excited to start testing different vinegars but I could not buy more that one bottle. They rated 300 ml of Balsamic the same as three litres of white vinegar, one bottle. I don’t know who cleans with balsamic ? Unleash the data plans please, ready to cook almost anything online.

Sydney’s official Covid lockdown allowed me to get thoroughly sick of my own cooking. The biggest highlight was foraging pine mushrooms. Even cooking David Chang’s leek oil noodles still had my taste! An abundance of Instagram cooking tutorials only served to highlight my deficiencies in the kitchen, not give me the food I was missing. Restaurants only just surviving fell. Panic set in, I needed my favourite restos to survive. T shirts & cookbooks ordered ,what else could we do? Gourmet delivery and take away sprouted.  Drinking a margarita from a cup in the street was a new joy, previously prohibited by our lawmakers.  Can we please retain some of these simple pleasures ? The curve flattened and restos were allowed to open, I took every table I could get. I took ten seats at Restaurant Hubert  just because I could. Set menus imposed to ensure it was worthwhile for restaurants to open. A couple of tables with a couple seats only ordering tap water and starters would kill any restaurant in these times ! Tip big we were also told.

Reservation systems got restructured as groups missed reservations, leaving tables empty at empty restaurants. Our beaten brothers and sisters in hospo were desperate. Mandatory set menus were imposed , some good and some needing a tweak. After years of watching degustation restaurants open and then change to burger joints, Sydney diners were growing tired of being prescribed what to eat. I decided to avoid set menus and degustation a while ago. I’m a fan of the quality casual dining that Sydney has pioneered. However, during lockdown I did not give a flying fuck if I had to order the set menu if it would allow me to get that joints food again in the post covid aftermath. I was even happy to pay extra for iconic dishes from restos left off their set menu and only available as an add on, such as The Salted Egg at Poly. When I look back to this point , I must say, my self appointed position as one of Sydney’s Dining Ambassador, I feel annoyed. I go to a resto to eat, drink and be merry, not to sit and be seen whilst sipping on tap water. The one size fits all model seems to be a Sydney favourite! Those who didn’t order much had me ordering much more, like i need to order more!

I was so excited to be in restaurants again but my excitement was matched with time restrictions. An hour 15 mins here, hour and half there. My excitement and time restraints caught me out several times. I’d find myself ordering a martini, beer and bottle of wine the first time the wait staff spoke us. I did like being triple parked.

Slowly fear subsided and more people felt confident to dine out without getting infected. Restaurants were still at half capacity. Then something weird happened, complacency slipped in. I’d seen this with architects I’d employed during Covid Lockdown. Poor service and apathy crept in. The building that I was told was ready to go in April was not ready in October. The bastards had taken the allowance and done nothing. Restos too, acting as if at max capacity were serving substandard food and poor service. Surprisingly poor was 10 William Street, one of my favourite restos. I’d been two weeks before and had a great meal so I felt confident to take my friends there for their birthdays. Every plate went back to the kitchen with food on it. The waitress could not get the sommelier to come upstairs to talk to me. I ordered predictable wine and sat with an empty glass for far too long. Our waitress was giving her best service to three tall handsome Dutch gentlemen two tables over and spent some time sitting on their laps. A compulsory tip of $147 was imposed , then the waitress asked for more tip !

On this occasion I was particularly excited. I had dropped an Instagram story hyping this resto and my upcoming dinner. I dropped another story expressing my disappointment. Many people responded to this story, an owner contacted me and blamed covid. Fair call, it’s just not going to get me spending my money there for a while. It felt weird,  I’m a massive supporter of restos, I’m a fan of chefs and restaurateurs. Many friends work in hospo and related industries. I’d been dining out as much as possible. I knew they could do better but I could not, and still cannot , work out how I could communicate to them to get better service and pay more attention to what was coming out of the kitchen.

Another particularly poor experience was from some other Sydney restaurant heavyweights.  I’d secured a one hour and 15 min reservation. The usual, triple parked. Ordered, the all the food arrived in 15 mins, before some of the drinks. Done and dusted in 45 mins was weird experience. It was such a rush, only one dish would get me back, bone marrow pasta. I will also return to Barstardo, at least for that pasta, but it won’t be with four other people either.

Some Restaurants even opened during Covid. I jumped at the chance to get Federico Zanellato’s pasta without a degustation at LuMi Dining, his new Restaurant Leo. As did Ben Sears (Moon Park, Paper Bird ) opening a middle Eastern Restaurant Ezra. Smalls Deli, Lox in a Box, SOUL Dining are more openings.

And some restos smashed it. Alberto’s Lounge, Café Paci, Cicca Bella, Totti’s, Ragazzi, Bar Uma, Sean’s Panorama, Cho Cho San, Chaco Bar, Chaco Ramen, Mr Wong, Gogyo, Fai Jai,  when they had the chance to trade again.

But the restaurant I returned to most, with no set menu, was Lotus 2.0 Potts Point. Set for closure by Merivale, the building was sold. With the onset of Covid the new owners wanted to see solid trading in these times, we were lucky to squeeze a few more months of the opulent decadence Lotus was dishing out. Soon my friends wanted bookings with me there. I’d eat half the menu and return three days later to eat the other half. As thunderstorm’s of truffle rained down upon lobster and crab a lowly pasta dish demanded my attention. The humble fungi noodles from Big Sam Young, BSY. Yes, truffle elevated this plate of noodles but only a few dishes get me inspired to try to replicate at home. I just hope BSY keeps enough shrooms on hand so he can make me something similar at his next venture.

This dish kind of signifies Lotus 2.0 for me. A restaurant that sells burgers next to prawn toast, lobster next to cheese toasties, steak next to sashimi is a restaurant I’d generally avoid. It’s the food everyone wants but my personal mandate for specific direction in dining was obliterated through the food tasting absolutely fucking delicious. Then it became easy , I could eat anything at Lotus, plus the staff were happy and relaxed and I could always find nice wine below $80 a bottle. Mushroom pasta, simple and delicious, add egg, yum, make enoki crunchy, yummier, add truffle decadence, all day . It can be a simple dish, delicious, add truffle, opulent. Boom. Lotus 2.0.

So now, as restriction look like easing ? It is much harder to get a seat, spontaneity is gone especially if you want to go to a bar after dinner. My attitude is positive, I’m positive i’m going out. Positive i’ll try new places and return to old favourites and i’m positive i’ll give those disappointments another chance. Just please can everybody wash their hands.

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