Whether you're a self-confessed foodie or you have your heels dug in the hospitality industry, you will have likely noticed a shift in fine dining. 2016 said goodbye to some of the greats in Australian fine dining – Moon Under Water, Rockpool, Marque, Sepia, Movida, L'Etoile – a list sadly much longer than even most degustation menus.
However, in their place stands newbies like Chop Chop Chang's and Coda, as well as a number of other more long-standing institutions that remain. Visit any one of these popular dining heavyweights and you'll see that dining on fine food is still very much on trend – it just often comes in a slightly more casual form. Think stereo sounds such as the Wu Tang Clan, long communal tables, and relaxed staff wanting to be your friend rather than your napkin folder. You may even see a few pairs of sneakers peeking out from below the tables!
With The World's 50 Best Restaurants coming to Melbourne next month, it's clear that Australia remains at the forefront of this new world in the hospitality industry and a sure sign of why we were honoured the rights to host. Where other awards like the Michelin guide celebrate the classical fine dining restaurants of the world, the 50 Best celebrates novelty – something which is very much alive in Australia's restaurant culture. One writer described the difference between the two prestigious lists this way: 'if Michelin is the list of white tablecloths, the 50 Best is the list of no tablecloths.'
As we look forward to the exciting event reaching our shores, we take a look at the current trends in the hospitality industry.
There's been so much fear that fine dining is disappearing, but what these places tell us is that there is nothing to fear about change. Fine dining is not going away, it's just evolving. Devoid of the stiff and stuffy trope that so often accompanies fine dining, diners can now feel more relaxed with friends while still enjoying the same great food (and yes, the price tag is still there for those that like to indulge in quality food).
Looking back at the last century, it's interesting to note how little changed in the world's best dining rooms. And yet, look just at the last decade and you'll see dramatic change. Perhaps this has been spurred on by a desire to keep up with new kitchen technology, perhaps it's that the culinary world has been made much smaller with the Internet, or perhaps the foodie culture of great food has become so mainstream that it's had to evolve to suit the wider population. There's no denying our world today is fast moving, and that is undoubtedly changing how we dine.
Navigating the ebbs and flows of culinary trends is every chef's challenge, but it's a challenge made much easier by a now more connected world. No longer confined by the straightjacket of a particular cuisine, chefs can incorporate just about anything they like into a menu – molecular gastronomy, foraging, nouvelle cuisine, sous-vide cooking, coddling, curing… the options are limitless. It's creative cooking at its best, but at the heart of it still sits fresh, regional produce, which has always been the secret to great food.
The thing about today's fine dining experience is that there is nothing typical about it. Every experience is made to be unique and there are simply no rules any more. People are able to get their hands on high quality, fresh, sustainable food whether walking into a retail precinct, cultural hub, a cellar door, or street market. Good food is available anywhere and everywhere – no white linen tablecloths or candles required.
Driven by innovation and quality, today's diners are driving the changing fine dining scene. They want a casual, fun and flexible experience, without compromising on quality. More open than ever to varying cuisines, they want choice and something unique, yet the flexibility of eating any hour of the day or night.
Social media also assumes an influential role, setting new food trends and providing a platform for food enthusiasts to share their passion for good cuisine. With this in mind, restaurants must now excite and stimulate the senses enough to make people share their dining story. Many choose to do this by encouraging diners to order share plates and tapas to celebrate the coming together over great food and wine.
Australia has well and truly embraced "The Chipotle Effect", a term coined to describe the number of highly trained chefs emulating the business models of large, successful fast food chains. The movement has seen the opening of gourmet pizza shops, sushi dives, burrito, salad and souva bars and it shows no sign of slowing down.
Bang, for example, is the perfect place to share good times with friends, colleagues or lovers. Head Chef Tapos Singha, of Gowings Bar and Grill fame, serves up fast, fresh, exotic cuisine inspired by his Bangladeshi roots, coupled with the best local produce and finished with some elegant finery. The food dishes are staggered in price according to size, and within minutes you can be enjoying little puffs of fried fuska or the duck egg omelette with blue swimmer crab. The relaxed staff taking your order and recommending cocktails help maintain the raw "street edge" and "grown-up hipsterfication" vibe it's loved for.
Araliya is a restaurant serving modern, Sri Lankan-inspired food right in the heart of St Kilda on Fitzroy Street. The people that visit this street are busy. Be it catching up with friends, taking a break from shopping, or meeting with a colleague to discuss an upcoming project, dining is just part of the experience of being out and about. But that doesn't mean that diners want anything less than great food. Araliya is the perfect example of high quality, beautifully executed fast food for busy people.
Another great example is Bills, a casual, all-day dining Surry Hills eatery owned by renowned Australian chef Bill Granger. Loved by both family cooks and sophisticated foodies, Bill's sunny, easy-going approach to good food is an essential element in his enduring popularity. In March 2013, Bill was awarded the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival Legends Award, as nominated by his peers. A quick stop here will see you eating the best scrambled eggs and ricotta hotcakes in town.
Experience is a very important factor in the dining world today. If an experience is deemed 'worth the money', people will return again and again.
Ingredients also matter to the regular diner. Demand for grass-fed beef is soaring, even though it's priced at nearly double the cost of regular beef. The Australian organic industry as a whole is now valued at around $1 billion.
The working generation of people born in the 80s and 90s value the social aspect of dining out and want their meals to deliver on taste, price, quality and experience. This is something that chefs understand. Built on the premise that fast food doesn't have to come at the cost of ethical food philosophy, these new "fast food" enterprises offer a feel-good option for dining on-the-go. It helps if they're Instagram-worthy too. So, do we think that fine dining is dying? Absolutely not. Fine dining is very much alive and well… it's just dressed a little differently.