Australia's dynamic restaurant culture

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Australia has a diverse and innovative restaurant scene, thanks largely to immigrants introducing their cultural cuisine to our country

Portento, Surry Hills, Sydney

Australia has a restaurant culture that’s remarkably dynamic. From casual banquets and café meals to internationally inspired cuisine and five-star five dining, the options are virtually endless, with exciting and rewarding menu choices on literally every corner. It’s bigger and richer than what you’d find in many older and more populous nations, but more nimble and fluid than many of the great food traditions. And perhaps most remarkably of all, it has largely come about in the space of a single generation. But where did it all begin – and just importantly, where is Australia’s restaurant culture headed?

The history of Australian cuisine

It’s fair to say things didn’t start with tremendous promise. For many years, the prevailing view was that a good plain dinner was roast beef, greens and potatoes, with a pudding for dessert. It was migrants who enriched Australia’s food culture, bringing variety and nuance.

The descendants of the Germans who settled in South Australia in the 1830s, for instance, still make the best bacon in the country. And by 1861, nearly 40,000 Chinese migrants had arrived as part of the gold rush, bringing new skills to market gardens, shops and kitchens.

Skipping ahead a century, we find the seeds for restaurant culture being sewn. Mass migration after World War II brought more than two million immigrants to Australia between 1947 and 1969, many of them from southern and central Europe.

Today, Australasia is not just where we are but part of who we are. Our biggest export partners are China, Japan and South Korea; we holiday in Bali, learn Indonesian and Japanese in school, and count among our recent prime ministers a fluent speaker of Mandarin. And all of these strands contribute to the fabric of how we eat.

“[Australian food] is completely modern and completely of the moment,” says AA Gill, restaurant critic for London’s Sunday Times. “It’s unencumbered by history and heritage, and that’s terrific – that’s exactly the thing that has killed French food, being unable to cope with the dead weight of the inheritance. Restaurant food in Australia is incredibly light and nimble.”

What dining is available now?

North Bondi Fish, Sydney, NSW , Instagram photo by @chefmattmoran

So what is today’s Australian approach? It’s not easy to capture a thread that’s true to all restaurants, high and low, but that dynamic, freestyle quality is perhaps the key. It’s a virtuosity that starts at home and in the schoolyard, and is then cemented with the extensive overseas travel that’s a rite of passage for so many young Australians.

The Australian household without a wok is more exception than rule, and in the capitals at least, dim sum is a social ritual that pulls in diners by the thousands every weekend. Australia’s Chinatowns are large, have deep roots, and are part of the lifeblood of their cities. They have in turn fostered Thai, Vietnamese, Malaysian and Korean offshoots of their own. Tasting menus in fine-diners with tables laid with chopsticks and knives and forks in alternating courses aren’t unusual.

The flavours of Italy and the Middle East run just as deep. Australia’s love affair with Italian-style coffee is well-known (London restaurant writer Joe Warwick calls Australians “the world’s new great coffee bores”), so much so that we’ve now given the world our own take on the caffe latte, the flat white, while hummus is a mainstay of school lunchboxes and doner kebabs have the dubious honour of being the late-night ballast of choice for the nation’s more enthusiastic drinkers.

Our restaurants are all about ideas that are born of other cultures, but made our own. The key is that something is gained in the translation, a little bit like the way the French borrowed from the Japanese, who in turn borrowed from America, creating discrete art forms along the way.

In saying that, we also increasingly looking in our own backyard for inspiration. Jock Zonfrillo, a Glaswegian-Italian, has made his name at Adelaide’s Orana, with the ingredients and traditions he has explored with the help of Australian Indigenous communities over the past several years. “Native Australian ingredients have a strong astringency that is unique to this continent,” he says. “Understanding those plants, the culture which has thrived on them, and developing the techniques with which to allow those ingredients to shine is the beginning to truly understanding more about our own backyard. The power of our own ingredients will help put a stamp on what Australian cuisine really tastes like.” 

The new Australian restaurant

Informality without surrendering quality or comfort is a mantra of the new Australian restaurant. The bistronomy movement – a term coined in Paris for restaurants with three-star ambitions for the gastronomy, but with the no-fuss conviviality of a bistro – is not news to us.

It’s been a while since an Australian restaurant of note required a jacket, let alone a tie, but the professionalism behind the burners and on the floor has increased significantly.

And while the young folk who pull our espresso, pour our pinot and stir our martinis are increasingly as inked and beardy as anyone you’ll find in Shoreditch, Williamsburg or Mitte, there’s an openness and an optimism here that (hopefully) trumps any hipster aloofness.

Confidence has not been in short supply in Australian restaurants, but what today’s visitor finds is a new assurance. Global recognition is encouraging a greater definition of an Australian style. The natural beauty of the land has acted not as an inducement to complacency but as a creative muse and a spur to greater quality. The people behind our restaurants work hard to make it look easy, and we are all the beneficiaries.

Top Australian restaurants to try

Porteno, a relatively new Sydney establishment that made a clean sweep of all the ‘best new restaurant’ awards when it opened.

North Bondi Fish and Sean’s Panaroma in Sydney, where diners can wander off the sand for spicy prawn cocktail buns and microbrews on tap.

Classically trained chef Joseph Abboud pairs pickled green almonds with baked barramundi at Melbourne Lebanese gem Rumi.

At Abboud’s second restaurant, The Moor’s Head in Melbourne, he invites diners to “pop in and see what happens when two Arabs who love pizza and Middle Eastern flavours decide to combine the two” ­– with delicious results.