Capital gains: the rise of Canberra’s dining scene

21 March, 2016 by
Danielle Bowling

Sydney and Melbourne tend to dominate the headlines when it comes to Australia’s bustling hospitality industry, but Canberra is making serious inroads, offering one of the country’s most vibrant dining scenes.

We can all remember drudging through Old Parliament House in our school uniforms, enduring the tedious tour only because Questacon was the next stop. We’ve all been taken to the country’s capital by our mothers or grandmothers, who promised that Floriade was so much more than just a bunch of flowers, swooned over by overzealous photographers.

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But Canberra’s come a long way. It now has one of the country’s most exciting food and beverage offerings, with a long list of bars, restaurants and cafes in which much more enjoyable memories can be made.

One of the city’s most recent openings is that of Molto Italian, a restaurant on Eastlands Parade in Kingston, which seats 130, and boasts sleek, modern interiors, high ceilings, an open kitchen and bar and a wood fired oven.

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It’s run by Carlo Tosolini, the man who operated Tosolini’s in Civic for 29 years, before it closed in April last year. He says that while Canberra has always had great restaurants, the city’s foodservice industry is evolving and offering a broad range of business models, from the more traditional Italian fare at Molto, to quirkier caf concepts in booming areas such as Acton, Barton and Braddon.

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“There’s certainly been a shift. For example, down on the [Kingston] Foreshore, it’s now a destination; it’s a hub of restaurants. But having said that, I’ve also noticed the hip cafes popping up in some of the suburban areas. 10 years ago, no one would have thought there would be a market here for people to just open a little place in a suburban area and for it to be an instant caf house.”

Tosolini says the city’s industry and its diners have matured to the point where he’s comfortable for Molto to offer two seatings – something he’s never done before.

“When you see your restaurant full and you see people enjoying food and wine, it’s really hard to tell them at 7.50pm that they’ve got to leave by eight because there’s another booking. That’s certainly challenging.

“[But] I guess the dining scene has changed. Canberrians are starting to understand that if they ring to book for 7pm, that’s not really a good time, particularly on a Friday and Saturday night … so with not too much convincing, and a nice demeanor, you can let them know that you’ve actually got two seatings and a lot of them are embracing that now. That’s because the dining scene has changed so much that they’ve become used to, I suppose, getting told what to do – in a nice way – by us,” he says.

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According to Tosolini, the city’s restaurants are enjoying the patronage of both interstate visitors keen to escape the rat race and enjoy a weekend away, as well as professional locals with decent disposable incomes.

“A lot of young kids are getting into the housing market and rather than buying houses, they’re getting into apartments and they have designer kitchens, and while they’ll use those kitchens, generally it’s a lot easier for them to whip downstairs,” he says.

“For someone in the corporate world, who works long hours and is living on their own, the last thing they want to do is sit in front of the TV and see what MasterChef is cooking up. They can just go downstairs and – particularly at our place – grab a quick pizza or pasta then go back upstairs and get back on the laptop.”

Creating a brand

Pasquale Trimboli operates Italians & Sons in Braddon and Mezzalira on London Circuit, and agrees that Canberra’s foodservice industry is in a period of considerable growth.

“There’s certainly a lot of growth coming from the new precincts that are popping up, like Acton, Braddon and Barton. We’ve probably seen the biggest move in cafes and restaurants in the past 20 years.

“I think it’s been born out of a lack of choice in previous years, where we all felt like we were going to the same old areas, the same old places, and now we’ve got these places that are delivering their own character … We’re all working together to create a brand for the city, and we’ve got a collection of businesses and restaurants that complement each other,” he says.

Despite the growing demand from diners, running a business in a city the size of Canberra can be a real challenge, Trimboli adds.

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“We find that it’s an easy place to make a big splash, but it’s a very hard place to run a good operation, and that comes down to a few things. One is that it’s very hard to find full time, professional staff. Most of the talent runs off to Melbourne, Brisbane, Sydney and other places. So it’s hard to keep the good guys in town because obviously there are a lot of lifestyle attractions that go with the large capital cities.”

There’s also the fact that growing competition and a relatively small population mean operators need to be on their toes now, more than ever.

“We deal with a regular, loyal clientele, so it’s really easy to make a really good reputation for yourself because you’re dealing with that repeat business. But at the same time, it doesn’t take long to lose a few people, and you can go the other way. In Sydney and Melbourne, and the large capital cities, they can almost afford to lose a regular, because they’ve got tourists walking through the door,” he says.

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While Trimboli is realistic about what the increased competition means in a city the size of Canberra, he says it’s for the greater good.

“More competition should be a worry to everyone, but at the same time, it’s one of those things that we thrive on because it keeps us on our toes. It pushes us harder and makes us hungry to maintain our standards.

“Competition is always good. If it’s not there, it breeds complacency … While we view every restaurant as competition, we only view the serious operators as serious competitors. And the general feedback is that there still isn’t enough good restaurants around in Canberra, so there’s opportunity-plus. There’s a big opportunity to do something different and really make a name for yourself here.”