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Restaurants can cross boundaries well - or poorly

Restaurants can cross boundaries well - or poorly

I had a weird dining experience recently. I went for a walk around the Melbourne and Sydney buildings tonight, looking for a place to eat. There were both old and new places, but it occurred to me that there wasn’t actually much diversity on offer here. There were three pubs, roughly six Asian restaurants, three minor fast food chain joints, and a new Chinese/Australian fusion place.

I wasn’t overly hungry, so I took my chances with the new place. From the outside, it looked fairly quiet. It had a bar in the centre, with some beers on tap, and a fairly modern décor. However, when I went in, the modern Asian fusion music was quite loud, and it bounced off all of the hard surfaces. I ordered some dumplings, and while the presentation was excellent, they took 20 minutes to arrive despite the fact the place was virtually empty. The dumplings cost $15 for 5 pieces. They tasted fine, although nothing to write home about.

While I sat there waiting for the food, I pondered exactly who the intended market was for this place. According to the waiter, the place had been open for around 4 months. And granted, I turned up mid-week, so I didn’t expect it to be heaving with people. Maybe it’s busier on weekend nights, or at lunch time.

I think that what really jarred was that the place overall didn’t meet my initial expectations, and so I experienced cognitive dissonance.  From the outside, I thought there may be some gentle background music playing, and that there would be a reasonably extensive menu, as the restaurant covered one of the larger floor plans in the building. I also thought that there would be at least part of the menu aimed at students, in terms of price.

It wasn’t hugely expensive, but it was much more so than the other six Asian restaurants nearby. Most of these six restaurants are eminently forgettable, but they are still around because they know their market. They cater to the lunch trade and the student market, and they do it well.

This place did not compete with them on menu, and the ambience was closer to a pub than it was to a restaurant. But it did not offer the standard pub options, or even “fusion”-style variations on them. There were no TVs in there, and no attempt to tie itself to any culture or history.

So it occurred to me that what the owners of this place are trying to do is either really courageous, or really deluded (time will tell). In essence, they are trying to be trendy in a part of the city that is struggling. This restaurant is located in is one of the city’s oldest retail buildings, which is probably heritage-listed, but also quite run-down and could do with a few coats of paint.

This style of restaurant belongs over in Braddon, which over the last decade has become the place to be, and to be seen in Canberra. The restaurants there are steady most nights of the week, and full to bursting on weekends. I have no doubt this popularity means that the rents in Braddon are now sky-high, reflecting its trendy status.

So I can easily imagine the creators of this restaurant looking at Braddon, but turning it down on the basis of cost, then looking at the rent for a large floor space in the heritage building, and thinking “fantastic – we can be the same type of place as what exists over there, but with much lower rent”. If nothing else, it sounds plausible.
But I think it really depends upon what type of experience people are looking for. If a restaurant wants to be high-class, then loud music is not the way to go, and the service and food quality need to be much better than run-of-the-mill. If it wants to be trendy, then its food needs to be unique, and to have a fair bit of variety, so that the attention of the “in-crowd” is not a flash in the pan. If it wants to cater to students, then loud music and modern décor are fine, but the prices need to reflect their budgets. And if you’re going to set up in one of a city’s oldest buildings, then at least referencing the history of the city (or the broader era it dates from) would provide a consistent impression.

What do you think?  

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