Once upon a time long, long time ago, before Yelp, before Trip Advisor, before Snapchat and Instagram, word of mouth and newspaper reviews were the be-all and end-all in deciding where to wave our shiny new Diners Club cards on a Saturday night.

Calendar wipe to 2018 and the scene is entirely different. Australians dine out 24/7, are offered an all-embracing experience that can be shared, liked, disliked and retweeted in seconds. Despite the hard liners from a small pack of foodies, dining is no longer just about the food, and the competition for that ‘like’ is more fierce than ever.

“Ambience is your first impression,” says Stewart White. “You walk in the door, do you like the vibe?”

White has a long history with the hospitality industry and is National Chair of Judges & Catering Association SAVOUR Awards. When judging venues he and fellow judges, just like avid consumers, take in everything, objectively.

“We judge on how it presents on the day – it’s not about me – it’s this works, that works, how long does it take for a reservation to be confirmed?”

It is clear that restaurants are being judged for more than their bisque du jour. Restaurants are notoriously risky businesses, and designing or re-designing a space is a pricey commitment, and it comes down to how many covers are needed to pay the bill. So how many seats are needed? How many tables will fit? Can we afford pavement space?

“It’s a matter of size and doing your sums,” adds White. “You can have tables almost touching each other, which is very Parisienne. Or a hole in the wall joint who can do thirty covers, but with Uber eats or whatever, you can add another ten. It’s all an equation.”

But a highly malleable one, and a feature is without doubt the value of expert design. Successful hospitality in 2018 requires a holistic approach.

“We have to get involved in everything,” says George Livissianis, a talented and in demand designer who has created more than a few beautiful dining spaces including Cho Cho San, The Apollo, The Dolphin Hotel and Billy Kwong in his seven year history in the game. However, no matter the space, old or new, Livissianis has a process.

“I walk through the space when it [a new restaurant] is empty, or when it’s something else. It lets my instincts get a feel for the space. There’s nothing like experiencing the space. And then if I have a basic brief from the client, then it’s about sketch planning.” But briefs can vary, and successful designers have to be clued in to the nuance.

“There’s a functional part of a brief which describes how many seats, the size of the kitchen and what they are trying to achieve with food and drinks.”

But some clients, such as Jonathan Barthelmess, owner of both The Apollo and Cho Cho San, can use a rather stylish shorthand.

“When he gave me the brief for the Apollo, he said “polished village food”, and that’s kind of all it needed to be.”

Another client, Maurice Terzini (who Gourmet Traveller once described as a fashion-forward renegade restrateur), is owner of both the super edgy The Dolphin Hotel, as well as the super casual, thongs-are-okay Bondi Beach Public Bar. He briefed Livissianis on the beach side venue by saying “It’s like Rick Owens comes to Bondi Beach.”

The now completed and highly successful venues reflect how well Livissianis took the concept, understood “The Brand” if you will, and ran with it.

The Dolphin is chilled playfulness – the white washed exposed brick/industrial is brought to life by the graffiti printed plastic covered banquette and seats in the pool room. But the white calico walls in the wine room, while more subdued are none the less frisky and fun – in fact the series of rooms, including the voluminous dining room are a cohesive and up beat experience in both dining and design fields.

“That last one at Bondi Beach, that’s all about concrete. So we used precast concrete for the bars, we put concrete onto the floors, we sprayed something that looked like concrete onto the ceiling but is in fact sound insulation,” says Livissianis, who describes restaurants and bars as material specific. “Cho Cho San has a lot of plywood detail in it. The Dolphin was about calico…”

It is this correct interpretation of the owners’ vision of what they plan to do with food and beverage that creates a brand with a buzz, with that certain frisson of excitement that makes the social snappers reach for their iPhones.

Add fire to the mix, and you have created drama.

The open kitchen, the exposure of the culinary backstage to the patrons in the not so cheap seats continues to excite patrons. They are transformed from diners to members of the audience. 

It’s in these restaurants that cool, clean almost Spartan design styles can be seen leaving the building. A striking example is found in Billy Kwong, owned by the vibrant and super talented chef Kylie Kwong. She describes the dining experience here as one of “celebration, collaboration and community”, and the fitout by Livissianis as “intuitive.” Indeed, the noisy action and drama of the open kitchen reflects an almost familial, warm aesthetic – and a blend of cultures. A chance for designer Livissianis to use a more vibrant palette in both colour and texture.

“That link between her Chinese origin and her Australian kind of origin – there were some material similarities.” The rusty red of the Australian desert, the lacquer box red of Asia, and the meeting of those with rich Australian Jarrah.

Add the heat and action from the open kitchen and the result is a dynamic experience.

You can see a full version of this article in the March / April issue of INFOLINK | BPN