Adelaide’s dining is back in vogue, but will the bubble burst like the 80s?

Adelaide’s dining scene is once again part of the national conversation but how does today’s era compare to the so-called gastronomic golden age of the 1980s?

In the heady 1980s, when Adelaide was the nation’s darling gastronomic destination, interstate diners would fly in on a quest to taste extraordinary food.

They’re doing it again, coming on weekend jaunts to Orana, Africola, Magill Estate, Hentley Farm, Botanic Gardens Restaurant and Peel Street – all which have won the highest accolades from national critics. It places Adelaide back at the forefront of national dining attention, but the pressing question is whether this grand new era of South Australian gastronomy can be sustained, or will it collapse as it did before?

Such comparisons are valid, but despite both eras being propelled by extraordinary creativity, each is significantly different. If the 1980s was a dazzling comet that burned out, the current dining scene has grafted its place away from the spotlight, eschewing extravagance for more modest ingenuity and presentation — and is likely to benefit more as a consequence.

Restaurant Orana was named Restaurant of the Year by Gourmet Traveller in 2017 (photo: Jonathan van der Knaap)

Ultimately the 1980s bubble of excitement that drove Adelaide’s dining scene burst. The Fringe Benefits Tax introduced in 1986 signalled an end to long and expensive business lunches, and the size of Adelaide’s dining audience immediately shrank. Chefs, committed to their visions of excellence, never stopped using elite ingredients, and crippling costs soon dissolved the league of extraordinary chef-owned fine dining restaurants: Neddy’s, Mistress Augustine’s, Possums, the Mandarin Duck and Mezes all closed their doors. They reached for the heavens, didn’t pay enough attention to business realities, and they fell.

An era of bleak dining conservatism followed, with financial administrators calling all the shots as café culture took hold, and safe, limited menus became the norm. But by 2014, the wheel had turned, and innovative chefs once again became leading lights, although this time circumstances changed. The audience now wants uncompromised food quality in informal settings rather than with fine dining accoutrements; informal restaurants subsequently emerged in laneways and lofts, with fit-outs constructed by friends. Entry costs for new business were lower, and bright young sparks with a headful of ideas believed they could make a go of it in Adelaide. With energy and verve, bold new eateries opened and have prospered.

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Africola’s unique approach to dining has seen it thrive in recent years (photo: Jonathan van der Knaap)

Importantly, business acumen is now better, placing Adelaide’s current dining renaissance on much surer footing. Many restaurants have been built on diverse ownership structures that bring together a broad array of talents; administrators, financial controllers, designers, floor managers and chefs each have a stake in businesses, allowing chefs the latitude to do their best work with a cohesive support network steering solid financial management.

Such partnerships are exploring multiple opportunities, diversifying into catering, bars, pop-ups and retail product lines in addition to restaurants, to maximise their opportunities and spread financial burdens. These opportunities to grow and thrive — simultaneously exploring myriad food ideas — keeps our best food talent in Adelaide, rather than treading the previously well-worn route to Melbourne and Sydney in search of national recognition. The nation’s dining attention is now squarely focused on what is happening here.

Restaurateur Simon Kardachi has been highly influential in shaping the current dining scene, developing a small empire of eateries — Press Food + Wine, Osteria Oggi, Shobosho, The Pot by Emma McCaskill and several others — but each having distinctively different personalities rather than following a franchising model. Quick to identify the curtain coming down on the era of discrete fine dining, he transformed The Melting Pot into a racy neighbourhood bistro. It succeeded, so he expanded, each time inviting chefs to invest as part-owners in the restaurants rather than just be employees. It brought focused energy, direction and ambition into these restaurants, and elevated the capabilities of the chefs.

the-pot-emma-mccaskill-adelaide-reviewThe Pot by Emma McCaskill has seen the Simon Kardachi venue take a new tack (photo: Sia Duff)

Andrew Davies, a former wild boy of the Adelaide dining scene, assumed greater responsibility to make Press Food + Wine an enduring success, and he in turn ensured his trusty kitchen lieutenant Mimi Rogers has a strong leadership role at Osteria Oggi. Shobosho has provided an opportunity for Adam Liston (once a rising star at The Melting Pot, before he grasped serious roles in Shanghai, then Melbourne) to come back to Adelaide and perform at the highest level. More ideas and opportunities from Kardachi’s gang are in the pipeline.

The recent reopening of the Port Admiral Hotel is another strong case of combined talent seizing an unexpected opportunity. Chef Stewart Wesson (Whistle & Flute, former national Appetite for Excellence young chef of the year) is working with directors Crispian Fielke, Angus Henderson and further input from Josh Baker and Dana Whyte (co-investors in city bar Clever Little Tailor), along with Low & Slow’s Angus Kiley and Jim Morrison — a cluster of diverse hospitality expertise and knowledge. Michael Proud, from the brigade at Osteria Oggi, is also aboard, stepping into the role as the pub’s head chef, which signals welcome possibilities in this town for emerging kitchen talent to progress.

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Flinders University’s Alere represents part of the shift in local dining

Blanco Catering has realised the importance of having chef Paul Baker at the helm of its Botanic Gardens Restaurant, and steering the menu at other Blanco sites, including Alere at Flinders University. Proprietor Steve Blanco has offered Baker a stake in the enterprise, a smart move that is likely to stimulate further ideas and achievements.

There is also a rare sense of fraternity and support between Adelaide’s leading chefs. It helps that they aren’t working in isolation, most having formed firm friendships with progressive winemakers and craft spirits producers, to help inspire, encourage and push each other a little further. It’s another important reason why Adelaide’s gastronomic renaissance is poised to continue.

This combined creative energy, and the conviction to step beyond fads by following inspiration, is most evident at recent events staged in South Australia. The eight-course Fermented Feast, a special opening night dinner for Ferment the Festival in October, was a showcase of flair, originality and confidence. It reflected the heady days of the First Australian Symposium of Gastronomy — a radical feast held at Carclew in 1984 that
had national media buzzing about the jellied seascape, basket of goose and venison, and pyramid of pigeons prepared by Cheong Liew and Philip Searle. Australia, which was then largely in the grip of nouvelle cuisine’s influence, was thrilled by such bold and daring innovations, and the Adelaide chefs’ influence took hold.

fermented-feast-duy-dash-adelaide-reviewThe Fermented Feast showcased Adelaide’s new culinary ingenuity (photo: Duy Dash)

The Fermented Feast menu created similarly serious discussion, presenting the merits of edgy modern cuisine that stretched far beyond a faddish embrace of pickling and brining. Diners tried thick roti spread with chopped prawns and fermented chilli sauce; snapper marinated in koji; confit baby squid with green olives and fermented greens; coconut pancake topped with buffalo curd and slivers of fermented radish.

Importantly, these recipes came from the various chefs’ daily repertoire, and their sensational culinary statement set excited tongues wagging, and social media posts spiraling. Also, the obvious harmony and wealth of talent at work that night in one cohesive, open kitchen reinforced the new model of collaborative event cooking in Adelaide that Simon Bryant has so cleverly nurtured as director of Tasting Australia — where egos are held in check to ensure a bigger, better experience.

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Cheong Liew, a star of the 80s dining scene, has returned in recent years to events inlcuding Tasting Australia

All this signals more opportunity rather than limitations, laying the incentive for an exciting new generation of cooks to remain in Adelaide and achieve myriad things of value and excellence.

It reaches far down the line. Pop-ups have become food businesses, and celebrated food specialists are earning notoriety and loyal customers in unlikely places. Emma Shearer is baking the best bread in town at The Lost Loaf within Plant 4 at Bowden; Jonny Pisanelli has progressed from selling his elegant pastries at a mobile street cart to running the successful Abbots and Kinney businesses; Rebecca Sullivan’s Warndu brand is creating innovative products and pop-up dinners that inform a wider audience about Australian native ingredients; Brad Sappenberghs has brought restaurant-quality Spanish fare into the Adelaide Central Market with his Comida stall, cleverly fulfilling dual purposes as a preparation kitchen for his thriving catering business and a cantina to serve walk-up customers.


Brad Seppen-Berghs is another of Adelaide’s new crop of canny chefs

Providing access to exciting new eating and drinking options across all levels — from restaurants to markets — is the key to Adelaide’s continued influence as a pivotal culinary city. Eateries that remain profitable and popular can leverage their creativity to retain talent. The energy created by success breeds more confidence, and the cycle continues.

The dining scene in Adelaide is now of equal excitement to the heady days of the 1980s, and has the capability to remain healthy and prosperous.

Header image: Osteria Oggi (photo: David Sievers)

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