Operating a restaurant in the CBD is tough. Competition is fierce and rents are astronomical. So why not look elsewhere? Suburban life never seemed so sweet, writes Tony Berry.
A strange sort of snobbery has long existed in the restaurant sector. Its roots are firmly fixed in the false belief, heavily promoted by the food "experts" who prattle on in the consumer media, that those who inhabit our suburbs are devoid of all taste and judgement.
It has become an unspoken truth that all sophistication stops where the boundaries between inner and outer suburbs begin. It is now a given that those who live in the city or its immediate crowded fringes possess taste, wisdom and discernment in far greater measure than those dreary souls who reside in the outer regions.
Restaurant reviews have long been disproportionately dominated by out-lets within a short cab fare of the city centre. The accompanying news columns mostly feature places and people within this same limited circle.
Thus an urban myth has grown among chefs and customers alike. For the former it runs along the lines of certain failure awaits any quality venture hoping to survive out there in the boondocks; and for the latter it is the firm belief that decent dining out has to entail a trip to the city.
A few brave souls, no doubt carrying emergency rations and bearing arms to ward off dangerous tribes, have been known to risk body and soul and journey into the hinterland on short, sharp raids to gather material for the annual food guides. But doubt and negativity accompany them all the way.
There is, of course, no logic in assuming all intelligent life is limited to our major cities. There is no reason for believing the denizens of the outer 'burbs scorn haute cuisine in preference for spag bol, chicken schnitzel or a roast and two veg. It stretches credulity to think that the devoted viewing audiences of MasterChef and all the other foodie shows come entirely from city-dwellers.
Are all the highly educated, well paid, well travelled execs and other workers who crowd our trains and freeways on daily commutes to far flung communities suddenly deprived of all taste and sophistication somewhere along the way? Maybe those are not speed cameras on the gantries above the freeways but hideous zappers that neutralise tastebuds and kill all thoughts of Matt, George and Co?
True, there was time within living memory when the nearest thing most suburbs could offer was a dreary Mum and Dad caf with surly staff serving poorly cooked stodge and soups out of a tin.
But those days are long gone and nowhere was this better highlighted than in a recent Herald Sun feature that gave great prominence to the high status of culinary treats in Melbourne's vast amorphous suburbs.
Based on information collated by the restaurant booking site Dimmi from 40,000 diner reviews of 800 Victorian restaurants, the article put paid to any idea that suburban living entails any sort of dining deprivation.
Running through the story are phrases such as "rustically refined Italian – some of the best Thai boat noodles in town – produce primarily sourced from their kitchen garden – 20 local craft beers on tap – a degustation-only affair, where locals choose a four, six, or eight-course meal – wagyu beef cheek – cauliflower soup with truffles" and much more. All this mirrors what is too often associated solely with city eateries.
Pictures show smart, zingy, bright and breezy dining places. Nothing dull, dreary and dingy in sight or to which that misused but pejorative word "suburban" could be attached.
Operators and chefs quoted are full of praise for business and life in the suburbs. Several are former city-dwellers and workers who apparently, at long last, have seen the light.
They bear witness to the truth that residents of the suburbs have the same tastes and dining needs, knowledge and experience as their counterparts back down the road. So much so that they can boast of reversing a long-standing trend by luring punters from the city. They also acknowledge the MasterChef influence for being a great leveller in that food knowledge is not confined to a few but is enjoyed by the many.
The concept of a degustation menu that once would have been anathema, or even unknown, out there in the sticks is now so well-established that one restaurant succeeds by offering that alone.
Food costs are no lower than in the city but rents tend to cost less. And there is generally easier access for customers and staff, although the need usually to use a car can have a slight negative impact because of the drink-drive limitations.
Overall it's all very positive with no more pitfalls and negatives than those faced by any business operator. A whole new world, in fact – but one that the industry still seems reluctant to explore. Surely it's time to get rid of all those old prejudices and outdated attitudes and to head into the far blue yonder – or at least as far as the bustling 'burbs beyond the CBD.