Is the design of a restaurant more important than the food? Have restaurants confused themselves as a glitzy night out rather than a place to eat? In a city that always reads the label, David Clark discovers what really counts.
For those who have experienced it, who can forget arriving from a boat up into Glen Meerkat's gloriously simple, so Australian interior at Berowra Waters Inn; or walking through Iain Halliday's gold leaf entrance portal of Darley Street Thai; or up the D4-designed catwalk ramp past swivelling heads at Rockpool.
At it's best - restaurant design has the capacity to make dining out a memorable piece of theatre with the all important star - the food - presumably in the spotlight. But theatre aside, a restaurant interior also has to work, combing the visual effect with functional necessity.
Luigi Rosselli is a Sydney architect who has designed close to 30 restaurant interiors. Steve Manfredi's bel mondo is perhaps the most noted. He says, "There are hundreds of detailed considerations that you need to deal with when you design a restaurant - you have to work with the comfort and the sound, the visual aesthetics, the lighting, the temperature, atmosphere, it has to work spatially from a management and kitchen point of view."
Remembering the famous Italian design philosophy of designing everything "dal cucchiaio all citta" ("from the spoon to the city"), Rosselli, who has indeed designed spoons, and knives and forks for one restaurant, says that being able to put a magnifying glass onto parts of a building is a satisfying experience for the designer and ultimately the patron.
Recently in Australia, London society decorator Emily Todd Hunter talked about a fine restaurant she'd designed in London where everything had been aesthetically managed to the finest detail. Apart from designing or sourcing the right chairs, fabrics, finishes, lighting, cutlery, waiters uniforms and graphics, a great deal of trouble had gone into finding the perfect hue of coloured glass for the dinner plates that would reflect an enhancing, warm golden glow back up to the faces of the diners.
It's a level of thinking that would most likely go unnoticed by restaurant patrons, but this attention to detail can lift a dining experience out of the ordinary. One thing that usually is noticed by patrons, and apparently overlooked by designers is the level of noise.
In the minimal nineties the penchant was for hard surfaces, floors, walls and most regrettably chairs - comprising one of the most important but hidden aspects of restaurants design - acoustics.
How many of us have experienced walking into the newest hottest restaurant with anticipation on the tastebuds that was immediately turned sour by the clang of cutlery and the cacophony of shouting diners. It can be enough to turn the eating ritual into a hurried, functional - "get the food down and get out quick" affair.
It's a fine line to draw, having the buzz of the restaurant around you and being able to hear your dining partners speak without having to strain above the din. Soft finishes are the best way to absorb sound, curtains, carpeted floors and upholstered seats, but if the fashion is for hard edges, then there's not many opportunities for lowering the decibels. Acoustic panelling can do some of the work. One restaurant interior that didn't have a single layer of softness in its hard edged interior was forced to add acoustic foam to the underside of the tables after complaints about the noise became too much. It helped - a bit.
But Rosselli puts some of the blame back on the public, "who vote with their feet. Every well padded interior didn't make it through the last decade. For example, Tony Bilsons' The Treasury (designed by George Freedman) had the best acoustics in Sydney, but it didn't work because people didn't want the clubby padded interior with lots of space around the tables. The wanted to go into the crush and the noise and overhear somebody else's conversations."
If patrons pursue the showy, glitzy night out - (definitely more Sydney than Melbourne) then there is a lot of pressure put on restaurants to make a spectacular interior and hire big name designers to provide it. It comes at a cost. Million dollar plus budgets for a restaurant can be an outlay that will never be recouped regardless of how good the food is.
Tony Bilson's Ampersand was famous for its spectacularly expensive interior but it was a cost that condemned the restaurant from the beginning. Rosselli thinks that "to go for million dollar budget is madness. You don't need to spend that much."
Mezrani says, "There has been a lot of criticism lately that restaurants are there to provide the big fashionable night out when really they are dining establishments. If you opened a restaurant in the 90s you needed a designer name to match. But if you're not getting good food and value and comfort and all the things that customers want, then it doesn't matter who designed it. How many restaurants have we seen open and close? A 'wow' design doesn't ensure anything about a restaurants success."
Tetsuya's is a case in point. Mezrani calls him "the chef's chef, possibly Australia's most acclaimed chef and it's all done out of a tiny little terrace in Rozelle (at the time of writing). Its as plain as can be, not even classic, nothing to dazzle - except for what's on the plate. If you have spectacular food on the plate, so long as the surroundings aren't offensive, you're going to be happy."
So just how important is design? Rosselli says it is most powerful at the beginning of an establishment's life. "I say to my clients I will give you a kick start, and then after that it's up to you to sustain it." In our sophisticated dining culture we have come to expect more of our restaurants. Like any great recipe, the great night out is made up of the right ingredients - perfect comfort, a little buzz of excitement in the ears, lighting that makes you and the food look gorgeous, tantalising aromas from the kitchen, a bit of theatre and a pinch of glamour, but always, always - excellent food.