In the mid-90s, ten years on from the 1985-86 Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide, food in Sydney had become decidedly more Mediterranean and less French. French influence remained in desserts, which were often of the soufflé or “creme brûlée-type”, but more broadly restaurants were swept by a craze for extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, oven roasted or sun-dried tomatoes, eggplant puree, bocconcini, focaccia, “superfluous” pesto, goats cheese and bruschetta. There are more mentions of fruit frappes than cappuccinos in the guides from this period, and it is increasingly possible to get fancy food in a pub, with the Robin Hood, Riverview, The Palace Hotel, The Paddington Inn, Four in Hand, Woollahra Hotel, The Nelson in Bondi Junction and Bellevue Hotel all rating mention for their tucker.
Leichhardt was the place to go for both traditional Italian and “Leichhardt Nuovo”. As Terry Durak and Jill Dupleix write in the 1996 edition, “ spag Bol and garlic bread” were seceding ground to dishes like “grilled scampi, rigatoni with radicchio”.
Italian fare from further west than Leichhardt is poorly represented, with the exception of a couple of restaurants in Five Dock and Il Manello in Ashfield. This is a significant change from 1985-86 which featured Italian in Top Ryde, Merrylands, Enfield, Campbelltown, North Strathfield, Parramatta and Bankstown. More recent guides show a pleasing reversal of this trend.
The influence of Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese cuisine transformed the Sydney dining scene in subtle and conspicuous ways. Not only had Sydney-siders become habituated to the presence of Thai restaurants, a “mass of traditional Thai eateries” provoked the editors of the 1996 edition to bemoan the ubiquity of the cuisine, especially in the context of King Street Newtown.
The Thai influence is also abundantly present in the use of flavours and ingredients in specific dishes in contemporary Australian cuisine, with coriander, ginger and chilli often accompanying fish, beef and chicken dishes, and even manifesting in the form of a Thai chicken pie at the endearingly retro sounding Fair Go Gourmet.
The overall tenor of the guide underwent significant change between the 1994 and 1996 editions, with a change in editors from William Fraser and Helen Greenwood to Terry Durak and Jill Dupleix. The design of the 1994 edition was still to some extent informed by the jocular theatrics of the 1985-86 guide. The double lion and lobster crest from the 1980s remains a presence, though it is less proudly displayed in the black and white of the book’s title page, rather than in colour on the front cover, and the temptation to pepper the publication with silly little cartoons persists. The 1996 guide give a very different impression. The cover is a more subdued sans serif title on blue-toned photographic background and the black and white photographs used throughout the book don’t get any more risqué than a close up of an oyster.
Durak and Dupleix introduced two new innovations to the guide in 1996: the now conventional /20 scoring system and a curious, now discarded, subsection for each restaurant titled ‘Buzz’, which makes explicit the nuanced and diverse range of atmospherics on offer as part of the dining experience. This is particularly evident in the suburb of Balmain, which for some reason is associated with its own subset of moods: L’avventura is “No-risk Balmain”, Babylon Sisters Brasserie is “Balmain bustle” and The Bug is “Balmain event”.
Contemporary Australian and the Asian influence
In the 1985-86 Guide French and Italian were the dominant categories. Restaurants that weren’t serving food attached to these older culinary traditions were distributed among the categories of Individual, Eclectic, International and Australian. By 1994 things had changed dramatically. ‘Modern Australian’ arrived as a category which included more than seventy restaurants, and ‘Cafe’ or ‘Cafe-style’ featured nine. Stalwarts such as Berowra Waters Inn, Clareville Kiosk, Kables, and La Passion Du Fruit moved from the previous French, Individual and Eclectic, to these new categories. Though ‘Cafe-style’ disappeared in the interim between 1994 and 1996.
Contemporary Australian is well exemplified by Stefano Manfredi’s changing approach to cooking at The Restaurant Manfredi. The reviewers of the 1996 edition refer to Manfredi admitting “many of his dishes would not be found in Italy”. It is the “Asian influence” and the different kinds of produce now available in Sydney that mean his “spicy seafood soup […] owes more to Thailand than to Venice” and ingredients like “fresh soy beans” and “Chinese cabbage” are combined with Manfredi’s “mother’s handmade pasta” and “roast veal”. Likewise, the “very 90s” food served in Morans, the eponymous restaurant of Sydney fine dining heavyweight Matt Moran, is described as an international blend of east and west, with “Moroccan spice here, Asian tang there, and a rash of down-home comfort food”.
This sometimes-explicit-sometimes-subtle nod to the orient is representative of a broader trend, “[s]pices and touches of Asia […]” are ubiquitous enough to form part of the buzz of the era: Raphael’s Renaissance Hotel, still clinging somewhat to 1980s trends, served “venison on sautéed bok choy with macadamia nuts and […] grilled king prawns with avocado and ginger mousse”; No.7 At the Park in The Rocks produced a “poultry essence with coconut liaison” — a tantalisingly named dish that deserved to star Michael Douglas– and “barramundi fillet with shiitake mushrooms wrapped in rice left on green curry sauce”; there were “notes of sesame oil” in the “seared kangaroo fillet with marinated beetroot” at Oasis Seros on Oxford St, Paddington; at Kable’s on George St, Serge Dansereau served “Tasmanian salmon with crab pancake and Thai-style dressing”; EJs on Macquarie Street and the Cafe for Obscure Avalon Painters both riffed on the barbecued octopus, a staple of the era, the former combining it with “soy and ginger” and the latter with a “with spicy sesame salad”; Shores at The Spit featured a “ravioli of scallop and ginger” with a “lime bisque sauce”; the Bellevue Hotel served its Kingfish cutlet “with pumpkin cannelloni and a ginger and coriander sauce”; and Courtney’s Brasserie in Parramatta combined “bok choy and Cumberland sauce” in its version of roast duckling.
The culinary experiments of earlier eras can appear clunky fusions as our trickery grows more nuanced.
At present pizza in Sydney has reached new levels of technical and regional specificity. Food writers in the guide demonstrate a growing awareness not only of the way pizza is made in different countries, but of the regional specificity within Italy itself.
This new wave pizza knowledge was certainly not part of food culture in the 1990s. Witness the reviews for The Red Centre in Crows Nest, described in the 1996 edition as a “prototype pizza parlour for the 90s”. The Red Centre is lauded for its “thin crust pizza” with a “good crisp base”. However, beyond these attributes the characteristics of the pizza would be unlikely to please the tastes of contemporary reviewers, in particular the “crazy but delicious combos” of “tandoori chicken; shredded duck with Chinese mushrooms and orange teriyaki sauce; or Cajun scallops dusted with hot spices”. Or crocodile. Looking ten years ahead, to the 2004 and 2005 editions, the preference for Naples inspired, chewy, puffy, wood fired pizza, thoroughly displaced these earlier preferences for thinness, crispness and diverse, exotic toppings.
A number of the star restaurants from 1994 take a tumble in the 1996 guide. It was a stated part of the Durak and Dupleix mission to shake things up a bit and shake things up they did. The Paragon Cafe was one of the worst hit, plummeting from a giddy chefs hat to a lowly 11/20 in two years. Also Raphael’s cops a 12/20, going from “high quality” fare to “busy”, incoherent flavours:
“The delicate flavour of a rolled loin of lamb was forever lost after it had been stuffed with red capsicum and served on a sweet corn and vegetable relish, surrounded by tomato coulis. Also very busy was the calamari, marinated in sherry and saffron and served on a celery and macadamia nut salad”.
CBD stalwart Machiavelli is given a dressing down for its “tourist dishes that were out of date in Leichhardt years ago”. And with Bill Granger departing in the interim between 1994 and 1996, long time inclusion La Passion Du Fruit continued its slide from “Sydney’s trendoid temple” in 1985-86, to a place with “lacklustre atmosphere” by the time Durak and Dupleix took over as editors of the guide.
The prose of the 1994 and 1996 editions is detectably different to Leo Schofields witty, acerbic, theatrical style. Perhaps so called political correctness and memories of the infamous Blue Angel case were on the reviewers’ minds? The writers for the 1994 edition hint at this with a now seemingly superfluous aside about the correct nomenclature for service staff in their review of the long-running, newspaper themed restaurant, City Extra: “Waitpersons (lets be politically correct here) in uniforms splashed with newsprint design”.
But, as Stewart Lee compellingly demonstrates in the above link, the typically laudable imperatives of political correctness are rarely a sufficient explanation for the absence of humour. Writers with Schofield’s ability provide amusement and insight through caricature are simply difficult to find.
Durak and Dupleix certainly have their moments. I particularly appreciated the phrase “tongue-jangling” to describe the “over-zealous use of vinegar” at The Palace Hotel, Flinders St Darlinghurst, and enjoyed imagining the “pond of ginger coriander beurre blanc” surrounding the “fluffy seafood terrine” at The Nelson Bistro. However, on balance it is far harder to detect an animating personality or sense of character informing the evaluations, particularly in the 1994 edition. The description of the buzz at La Belle Helene as “basically beige” would at times seem appropriate for the sense of voice that emerges in the writing.
Other notable mentions
- In Sydney’s now sophisticated burger scene it seems unlikely the Hard Rock Cafe’s combination of “turkey […] guacamole, bacon and cheddar” would be described in the glowing terms used in the 1994 GFG. It is also surprising that the Hard Rock Cafe was once in the GFG.
- Now a common sight in Coles, pink eye potatoes were novel enough to warrant specific mention in the menus of high end restaurants.
- Avocado was still finding its way onto the restaurant table in what we’d now consider odd places: on an antipasto platter at Machiavelli, combined with lime in “avocado butter” at Paisley on Glebe Pt, and in the “avocado and ginger mousse” at Raphael’s Renaissance Hotel on Pitt St.
- Culinary conventions concerning blueberries were yet to settle. Now more or less exclusively fodder for breakfast, muffins and smoothies, in the mid-90s they were on the plate with kangaroo and roasted pine nuts at Papillion on York Street, and with venison and “pecan nut medallions” at No.7 At the Park in The Rocks.
- Snapper was sometimes spelt ‘schnapper’.