Off the street

Lieta Aquarola (left) greeting customers at Sorrento restaurant.

Lieta Aquarola (left) greeting customers at Sorrento restaurant.

Having a restaurant or cafe on a busy ‘eat street’ is definitely a bonus, but it’s not enough to get the customers and the cash through the door.

You need little reminding that the restaurant trade is a tough, relentless business where securing and maintaining market share is a daily challenge. Nowhere is this more evident than in Australia’s various ‘eat streets’—precincts where several restaurants are grouped together to create a cheerful, excited atmosphere when the crowds are there and feel like dining out.

The upside of being on an eat street is a constant flow of possible trade. But the inevitable challenge is standing out from all your neighbours.

Lygon Street in Melbourne, Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley, Rundle Street in Adelaide, Sydney’s Stanley Street and the Gold Coast’s Tedder Avenue are just some of the popular precincts where restaurateurs have prospered, despite—or perhaps because of—the competition.

But being on an eat street doesn’t guarantee good fortune, with failures occurring in even the busiest of eat streets. And just because the area is buzzing on Friday and Saturday evenings doesn’t mean the restaurants are all making a killing.

The restaurants are often heavily weather dependent and vulnerable to extraneous factors such as renovation or construction in the area, which reduces the dining attraction and the parking availability for customers.

Three restaurateurs who have flourished on eat streets in Melbourne, Perth and Sydney all claimed that their ‘good luck’ can be credited to a good product, a motivated team and ongoing savvy marketing.

In the case of Simon Goh’s Chinta Ria, on the roof of Cockle Bay Wharf at Sydney’s Darling Harbour, the location factor is certainly at work. The circular restaurant is decorated with antique doors and furniture from China, while the main dining room is dominated by a huge smiling Buddha.

Chinta Ria—dubbed the ‘Temple of Love’—opened in 1998 and has become a favourite among workers in the massive tower blocks that edge the city’s inner-western business district. It also enjoys good patronage from tourists visiting the iconic Darling Harbour, who are attracted to the restaurant’s year-round outside seating facilities.

Simon Goh is a veteran of three successful Melbourne restaurants—Chinta Blues, Chinta Jazz and Chinta Soul—and he’s managed to create an ambience in each venue similar to the traditional ‘hawker markets’ of Malaysia and Singapore.

In Melbourne, Linh Cao founded Blue Chillies in Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, in 1999 well before the area gained its trendy reputation. Linh says there was little competition when she first opened her business, so her challenge was to build awareness of the restaurant name.

“Today there’s awareness but there’s also so much more competition, we have to work extremely hard to maintain our position,” she says. The restaurant specialises in authentic Asian cuisine using the best local fresh produce and is split over two levels, seating up to 110 diners.

The Sorrento restaurant in Perth’s busy Northbridge dining strip is regarded as WA’s oldest eatery, having been in business for some 55 years. It is owned by Alfonso Di Lanzo and managed by Sebi Conte, with one of Perth’s legendary characters, Lieta Aquarola, greeting the guests six nights a week. The restaurant seats 110 inside and a further 90 diners outside.

A common feature of these three eat street entrepreneurs is their marketing savvy. All three businesses have their own easily navigated website and all owners report continued business growth. In the case of Blue Chillies, emailed reservations appear in fax form, so a customer’s details are in a hard copy from the start. Their online listing was originally with City Search, but Linh decided to let the business stand alone on its own website to reduce costs, after she realised its name was relatively well-known. The Blue Chillies website currently generates about 10 per cent of the total reservations and the booking system is trackable, so Linh can find out where customers have come from.

She also uses mailbox drops to advertise new chef’s specials and menu changes in the local area.

“We get most of our custom through word of mouth, although last winter we put on a media party to celebrate our fifth anniversary and some changes we made to our décor. It was an expensive exercise, but it meant we had an excellent run of business during what is usually a slow time of year,” she says.

Linh hopes to capitalise on the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne next year and is looking to do some cooperative marketing to visitors in Melbourne for the Games.

The website for Sorrento in Perth contains a link to a Japanese language menu with a description of various dishes for inbound tourists from Asia—who make up around 30 per cent of the restaurant’s business.

All of the restaurants do little in the way of display advertising, apart from appearances in the Yellow Pages, although Sorrento does some stronger promotions in Perth hotels.

Alison Aston, manager of Chinta Ria, says the restaurant is constantly being asked to support charities such as the Heart Foundation by sponsoring meal prizes. She says the company is happy to do so because they see local sponsorship as a contribution to the community and as a means of attracting new customers.

The three restaurants all have signature dishes, which are marketed as the pride of their kitchens. In the case of Blue Chillies, it’s the thrice-cooked duck with white rice at $26. Chinta Ria’s signature dish is the Satchmo’s Squid—whole squid battered and sautéed in a sweet tamarind sauce for $26. Meanwhile, Sorrento claims its popular chicken and prawn dish is hard to beat.

Sebi Conte says his competitors are forever offering discounts on the advertised menu—a ploy he believes provides little benefit. “Our customers know us. We are a couple of dollars more expensive on some dishes, but we are reliable and we’re good value, so they keep coming back year after year.”

Blue Chillies has just five full-time staff—including Linh—with most of the wait staff recruited from Melbourne University. The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner seven days a week, with Linh admitting she works a five-and-a-half day week—usually for immensely long days.

She says it’s also important for restaurateurs to eat at other restaurants; she frequents several businesses in Melbourne and visits Sydney from time to time to check out the restaurant scene.

“It’s good to draw inspiration from other businesses. I’m always learning,” she says.

Chinta Ria is featured as one of the eight restaurants on the Cockle Bay Wharf website, which provides a link to the restaurant’s own site. The restaurant participates in joint promotional activities such as hosting familiarisation visits from the city’s concierges and the personal assistants in major companies. In winter months a jazz combo warms up slow Monday nights.

The restaurant takes bookings for lunch, but none in the evening. It has a liquor licence but allows BYO for wines with a $6 corkage charge per bottle, and no restrictions on days. Sorrento in Perth is also BYO, with a $5 corkage charge per bottle.

Alison Aston says competitive pricing is vital—especially when there are lots of other restaurants in the area.

“Our prices are very competitive for the city. Most of our main courses are between $14 and $20. We draw a lot of business from Christmas parties in December and also have banquets that range from $34 to $44 a head.”

Interestingly, the three restaurateurs interviewed for this article were surprised to learn they were regarded as leaders in their precincts—all claiming they were forever battling to keep their business on top of the game.

For more information on eat streets or the three featured restaurants, visit their websites at,, and

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