It’s been three long years since we last ate our way around Australia so intensively and on this return trip we noticed stark differences in the culinary landscape in the Great Southern Land. Here’s our report on the state of dining out in Australia.
We just spent two months bouncing around Australia on assignments for magazines and eating out on average twice a day.
While we spent a lot of time in fine dining restaurants specialising in the country’s unique Contemporary Australian Cuisine, we also sampled casual restaurants and cafes that had opened since our last trip, as well as markets and cheap eats in Asian food courts in Chinatowns around the country.
At many of the restaurants we interviewed the chefs and spent time behind the scenes observing the kitchen action before settling in for lunch or dinner. Our report on the state of dining out in Australia is by no means comprehensive. These are simply the trends that stood out from our experiences and observations from some 120+ meals.
Casual Dining in Australia
Shared plates are the thing when it comes to dining out in Australia at casual restaurants, usually prefaced on the menu by instructions requiring you to “order plates to share” and calling them “small plates and large plates”. The problem is that those small plates are often piled high with large portions and the large plates are huge.
Shared plates therefore are not great for couples (you can’t try enough dishes) nor groups where people have food allergies and ‘dislikes’ (“I’m gluten-free”, “I don’t like prawns”). For the former, it can be an unsatisfying meal where you end up ordering too much of something you don’t love. For the latter, it can lead to mutiny despite the bounty of food on the table. And then there’s figuring out how to split the bill…
Serving Sizes in Australia
Along with huge shared plates, the serving sizes of single plates at casual restaurants in Australia these days are so massive that you could easily mistakenly think that they’re meant to be shared plates. I’ve had breakfast eggs for one that would happily feed a family of four, as long as they hadn’t completed a triathlon before breakfast.
Several times we’ve had a few dishes to share for lunch that were so enormous that trying to finish them would leave the average office worker face down at their desk at 3pm having a little nanna nap – and probably snoring.
We’re inclined to think that the sizes are so large to justify the inflated prices that a lot of Australian food now commands. Sometimes the prices of a main course at a mid-range restaurant are close to the prices commanded at an Aussie fine dining restaurant – it’s just that the sizes of the dishes are bigger.
Given that over 60% of Australians can be classified as overweight or obese, we’d prefer to see AU$5 taken off the prices with a third smaller servings. Does Australia really want to follow the American example of everyone dining out taking home a doggie bag?
The democratised ‘dego’ in Australia
The degustation menu – or ‘dego’, as Aussies endearingly turn a term for a multi-course tasting menu into something more egalitarian – is alive and well when it comes to dining out in Australia.
Aside from one notable exception, chef Ross Lusted of The Bridge Room in Sydney who steadfastly refuses to do them, the ultimate expression of a chef-driven restaurant is still the ’dego’. The progression through the dishes, however, has changed a little, inspired by the likes of Noma no doubt.
Often the chef will offer a series of ‘bites’ on plates, modishly eaten with your hands, rather than the multiple courses of small bites of yesteryear, before moving on to more substantial dishes.
We personally love to eat as many dishes as the chefs are happy to send out (it’s our job, after all), but thankfully these days we don’t flinch as desserts arrives, as the top end chefs of Australia are experts at portioning dishes. Unlike the chefs at the more casual middle level, these guys are a lot more confident about not over-feeding guests and don’t subscribe to the idea of stuffed = happy.
In two months of dining out in Australia, we were never overfed in any of the restaurants where we had a ‘dego’, but often could not shovel our way through some scrambled eggs with bacon and sausages at a hotel breakfast – even with a colossal hangover and a long day ahead.
Matching Drinks in Australia
A lot of the time when we had an Aussie ‘dego’ when dining out in Australia, the restaurants also offered matching ‘drinks’. Now in the past this was called matching ‘wines’, but for the modern-day sommelier in Australia, some dishes just can’t be matched with wine — Australian wine or not, apparently.
We heard the phrase “we couldn’t find a wine to hold up to the dish” so many times we were beginning to think we should initiate a drinking game out of it. It’s patently ridiculous.
During one degustation menu with a dish of ‘Aussie BBQ’ we were offered a big full-bodied beer as a pairing. You know, because it’s a barbecue. Having been to one or two Aussie barbecues, I can confirm that many Aussie blokes will switch from beer to a big Aussie red (a MacLaren Vale cabernet sauvignon or Barossa shiraz are favourites) once the caveman cooking segment of the afternoon is over and food is served, while the ‘ladies’ might not have touched a beer all afternoon.
Sommeliers also can’t seem to help themselves when it comes to matching a drink with raw fish, because raw fish = Japan and raw fish + Japan = Sake. As much as we love Sake, breaking up a progression of wines with a shot of Sake doesn’t always work for us. Nor does a murky, unfiltered natural wine. Wine is filtered for good reason.
When Lara, bloated by a beer she disliked, asked a sommelier to swap out one such ‘creative’ choice and questioned him as to why it had been so hard to find a wine match, he responded with “it would have been too easy” and presented a glass of Western Australian Chardonnay. Actually, it would have been perfect.
Neither the impudence nor the wine choice was appropriate at a restaurant at that level. Instead of serving a well-matched wine, some sommeliers appear to want to compete with the creativity of the kitchen.
After the third ‘dego’ that offered both Sake and beer to match courses all we could do was look at each other and smile at the fact that sommeliers trying to do something different have ended up doing the same as every other ‘creative’ sommelier. Please make it stop.
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