The Diners Contract

Jun 22, 2009
  • Article by Online Editor

Melbourne architect Allan Powell describes the experience of fine dining as one of “an unspoken contract between diner and restaurateur” where the agreement involves the suspension of reality for the duration of the meal. The pair then engage in the delight and spectacle of the serving and enjoyment of a good meal where the food is of utmost importance yet only part of the total experience.

Arguably, the role of a design in a successful restaurant (or bar) interior is embedded primarily in the task of creating the theatre. The visual props on the table: crisp white tablecloth, sparkling and abundant cutlery and crystal clear delicate glasses waiting to be filled with rich white or red liquid all support the act of dining. The textures, lighting, chairs, flowers are all supporting elements with specific roles in order for the designer to carefully craft the atmosphere of the space and the formation of the setting for the eating experience.

Historically, there have been many significant restaurants across Australia where design has played a primary role in their success, many of those as rich and varied as the cuisine they reflect. Melbourne holds a significant share of modernist dining spaces such as the spiritual home of the Angry Penguins, Jimmy Watson’s wine bar in Carlton, designed by Robin Boyd (1961-1963) and later reworked by Peter Elliott. In the late 1960s, artist Mirka Mora’s eclectic Tolarno restaurant and gallery with its whimsical painted murals in St Kilda provided an important meeting for the city’s artists/designers. It lasted for over 30 years before lapsing into mediocrity. Recently it has been resurrected as ‘Mirka at Tolarno’ – once again due to the sophisticated hand of architect Peter Elliott in close consultation with new owner and chef Guy Grossi and with Mora’s distinctive artworks.

In the 80s, the original doyenne of Melbourne’s preoccupation with good food – the late Mietta O’Donnell – was quick to recognise the importance of creating memorable dining spaces within the city centre. Her eponymous establishment in the ornate Victorian building of the former Naval and Military Club in Melbourne’s Alfred Place was one of the first restaurants to mix a ‘multicultural’ menu with ‘power dining’, attracted prime ministers, poets, society matrons, corporate workers and artists. After succumbing to financial pressures in 1996, the site has most recently been reborn as Comme by visionary entrepreneur Frank van Haandel who commissioned a sophisticated and lush interior by designers Hecker Phelan Guthrie.

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Following the demise of the fringe benefits tax and the advent of the recession ‘we had to have’, the notion of the large-scale fine diner was out and a more opportunistic and inventive spirit took hold – once again particularly in Melbourne. Throughout the late 90s and into the new century, small-scale, unused spaces and laneways became sites for innovative dining experiences with the likes of designers such as Six Degrees seizing the opportunity to produce relaxed eating and drinking spaces such as Myers Place and more recently Three Below and Riverland. We also saw the emergence of the ‘restaurant/entrepreneur’ with chefs stepping out of the kitchens to create their own dynasties and often with a ‘design collaborator’ in tow as an integral part of the equation. Early protagonists include Maurizio Terzini and his designer Chris Connell with the sexy, European influenced interiors of Caffé e Cucina and Il Bacaro. Along with Ronnie di Stasio and his architect Allan Powell at di Stasio’s eponymous restaurant in St Kilda, Terzini and Connell, dictated that spaces should be dark dramatic enclaves starved of natural light, but full of character and excellent, European influenced food derived from authentic and fresh local produce.

The cultural zone of Federation Square has also provided quality additions to Melbourne’s dining scene with Paul Mathis and architect Peter Madison producing Taxi Dining Room and Transport, which cemented their collaborative relationship and elevated Mathis from his humble burger joint beginnings at Blue Train into a hospitality phenomenon.

Further north, Sydney designers such as Burley Katon Halliday
(BKH) transformed the hackneyed cliché of ‘Australianised’ Asian cuisine through the 1990s with a bright and colour saturated space for David Thompson at Darley Street Thai, carefully curated with classic 20th century chairs and a clean, minimal aesthetic. The approach signified a fresh and authentic approach to the complexity and richness of Thai cuisine in Australia. Teaming with Paramount chef Christine Mansfield, BKH extended on the modernist message with an interior designed to support Mansfield’s inventive, spice-infused, contemporary cuisine before moving on to redefine the hotel sector with the Kirketon in Darlinghurst and flagship Salt restaurant and Fix bar under the charge of chef Luke Mangan. The interiors were rigorous, bold, modern and uncompromising – designer chairs, slick surfaces and rich splashes of colour – designed to communicate that Sydney was a world class city with a design and food culture among the best in the world.

In more recent times, we have started to see exchange of cooking talent between Melbourne, Sydney and other parts of the country, yet it is not an exchange that necessarily extends to design expertise. Famously, Sydney witnessed the much-hailed arrival of Maurizio Terzini’s culinary talents at Bondi’s Icebergs yet he intriguingly chose Rome-based designers Lazzarini Pickering to design the interior and frame that incredible view. Melbourne’s Crown Casino dangles ‘fit-out’ incentives in an attempt to import celebrity names such as Bistro Guilliame, Neil Perry’s Rockpool and Nobu to contribute to Melbourne’s dining culture and yet few of these spaces speak of the city with bespoke designs created by local designers. Even the long awaited homecoming of Terzini to Melbourne at Crown’s Guiseppe Arnaldo & Sons (with co-proprietor Roberto Marchetti) missed the opportunity to engage a local designer. Instead, Terzini once again commissioned Italian-based Carl Pickering to imbue GAS with an intimate sense of the baroque and separate the venue from Southbank’s banal ‘international’ aesthetic.

Despite the obvious benefits of a cross-disciplinary approach to the creation of a successful hospitality business, there remains a pervading lack of respect for the contribution of the designer to the creation of memorable dining spaces. Many restaurateurs and chefs seem convinced that they are able to manage the creation of the total experience independently, opting out of appointing a designer and taking a DIY approach to save costs on their fit-out. While there are exceptions, ultimately it seems a false economy. The ability to separate the importance of the food with its environment within a successful venture is often difficult to distinguish. For example; would Shannon Bennett’s success have enjoyed such longevity if he was still cooking within a bland, beige interior in Carlton instead of within a considered and artfully orchestrated interior completed in collaboration with architects Elenberg Fraser? And, conversely, it could be argued that the Vue de Monde project put Elenberg Fraser on the map as designers of restaurants. More recently, the working relationship of husband and wife team, chef Andrew McConnell and architect Pascale Gomes McNabb, continues to evolve as their collection of restaurants expands. Their most recent ventures Cumulus and Cutler & Co reveal a maturing hand in design that presents a complete package, seamlessly integrating food, branding and interior.

Perhaps, the commonality between disciplines can be best summed up through the notion of time – the chef and the architect/designer begin their careers through a similar experience of training under a master and learn their craft over time. Following a lengthy education they refine their skills, slowly gaining the experience to innovate and implement their own concepts into their work and strike out on their own. It is this commitment to excellence across both disciplines that provides the solid foundation for success. And, as with the creation of good food, the creation of a fine dining environment is a potent combination of training, accumulated knowledge, budget and talent – with each reliant on the other for an immersive, holistic and, most importantly, memorable dining experience.

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