A profile of CBD hype

By Rhonda Dredge 

The hospitality industry strutted its stuff in March with the opening of a new restaurant to much crowing and the closure of an old one with a nest egg of $8.07 million. 

The opening of Souk, just off Flinders Lane, attracted a crowd from the quarter’s fusion culture while the closure of the Society Restaurant was attended by the old avant-garde from Bourke St hill.

New eateries are forced to hit the right note if they want to succeed. Guiseppe Codogno did it in 1932 by appealing to the family diner. A location at the end of a laneway helps in 2017, as do striking visuals.

Restaurant reviewer for Time Out, Delima Shanti, says she gets invites to four media launches a week, many in the CBD. “If I went to them all, I wouldn’t have a life,” she said.

The nature of the game is that although many aspire to the success of Chin Chin, with its regular queue of hopeful diners trailing along Flinders Lane, some will be out of business within a year.

Souk stage-managed its arrival on Melbourne’s dining scene with a fleet of designers and PR consultants. The décor in the split-level space on Bligh Place is pink, the menus are works of art featuring the lesser pictures of a famous photographer and the coasters are collectable. Everything has been thought through, including the wrap for the Kuwaiti fried chicken.

More than 100 people turned up for the media launch but even though the night was so successful, with a dozen chefs in the kitchen and sure-footed wait staff in overalls attending every need, reviewers will return incognito to sample the dishes again.

“Melbourne consumers are picky,” Ms Shanti said. The perceived absence of a dipping sauce for the chicken ribs, for example, could make or break the review even if the PR people have got the opening onto TV.

By contrast, the Society Restaurant opened in more forgiving times when Melbourne’s dining classes were pleased just to get out of the house. The Society ran for 85 years on this recipe, closing in January this year.

The two-storey building remains with its arched windows, brocade wall paper, burgundy carpet and frescoes of the Mona Lisa. Across the street are Pellegrinis and the Paperback bookshop, where existentialists still occasionally linger.

The timeless quality of the setting and the building’s potential for development attracted 27 bids from three contestants at the March auction, selling for $8.07 million to another family group.

Rita Wilcox, Guiseppe’s daughter, was at the auction for the handover. She ran the restaurant during World War II.

“I’m the last of the Mohicans,” she said. “My father started in Lonsdale St, then in Little Bourke St, then here.”

The family had a big round table with white linen and kangaroo/emu backed wooden chairs. There was always bread and fruit on the table and other reminders of classical Italian culture like frescoes in the toilets.

Property agent Ian Robertson, who bought the property on behalf of the new family, said “we want to breathe life back into it. We’ll be looking for expressions of interest from restaurants or hospitality operators.”

The building could be redeveloped with the addition of another two storeys but Mr Robertson said the family was keen to keep it in the hospitality industry. “Look at 189 Bourke St,” he said. “4Fingers will be opening there in two months. That’s good for Bourke St.”

4Fingers is a Singaporean fast food chain that specialises in Korean crispy fried chicken. It has 13 successful stores already.

While the pundits argue over the question of chicken, consumers can have their say.  The old family dining days when restaurants built a reputation over time by word of mouth have long since gone. Now reviews go up online immediately.

Some commentators see this instant feedback economy as a generational thing yet, according to figures from Yelp, more than half their reviewers are over 35, some 76 per cent have a university degree and 69 per cent earn more than $60,000.

If that is the case, then someone is being lazy. It could be one of those university-educated critics. Despite all of the hype, as we went to print, no-one had yet posted a review on the Souk site.

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