Stepping out

Frank Wilden, co-owner of Oyster Little Bourke in Melbourne, sees his alfresco area as integral to the image of his diner.

Frank Wilden, co-owner of Oyster Little Bourke in Melbourne, sees his alfresco area as integral to the image of his diner.

Those hazy days when outside tables were reserved for smokers are long gone. Miles Clarke finds there’s a certain magic in dining outdoors.

Even if we dine out several times a week, there’s always a sense of theatre. There’s the buzz of conversation, the interaction with wait staff, the quality of the fare being served and, most importantly, the ambience of the restaurant.

Alfresco dining adds a special magic to the mix. Even if it’s not in the most salubrious neighbourhood, there’s something pleasant about dining in the fresh air and watching the passing parade. On a balmy evening, simply being outdoors in the company of friends and a good bottle of wine can almost override the food.

Australian restaurateurs have used new technology over the past decade to boost the appeal of their outdoor business—efficient heating, umbrellas, and protective sails have made outdoor dining viable in most states all year round. In Melbourne, many “hole in the wall” diners have flourished thanks to more liberal liquor laws allowng customers to drink outside even on the chilliest of nights. And in Sydney, outdoor dining areas are starting to provide lightweight blankets for customers to rug up.

Nonetheless, alfresco  dining does introduce new variables to a business—and often some unforeseen
consequences as well.

Matteo Pignatelli has operated his Matteo’s restaurant in Fitzroy’s busy Brunswick Street for the past 14 years, garnering two chef’s hats for his Asian-influenced modern Australian cuisine.

Last year he added a rear courtyard with seating for 40 guests to his restaurant, which already has room for 120, plus an additional 40 seats in a private room.

Little did he know that summer would bring searing temperatures and put many of his guests off their food.

“If we were a more casual diner, people might want to relax in the courtyard, but I think at our price point, they prefer the main restaurant. We only used the courtyard about three times over summer—it was too hot even at night,” he says.

“We don’t advertise the courtyard, and so far it has mostly been used by smokers, who have to use the street when we have guests using the courtyard.

“We have louvres to control temperature and we’re trying to use the courtyard more efficiently—I think if people want to sit outside, they like to be facing the street.”

Consultant Tony Raymond, from Management Unlimited in Melbourne, recalls the pioneering efforts of his uncle in Canberra in the 1970s, when alfresco dining was illegal in most cities.

“It was an almighty effort to persuade the Australian authorities, but once Canberra eased up on the restrictions, Melbourne soon followed. There’s been a proliferation of restaurants in Melbourne in recent times, so restaurateurs need to use every possible means to attract people. Look at areas like Docklands, where several new outlets are opening—it makes good sense to use those water views. I can’t fathom why councils want to charge restaurateurs for pavement space, considering how much alfresco dining adds to the overall atmosphere of the urban precinct.”

The award-winning Replete Providore on Barkers Road in Hawthorn seats 12 outdoors and a further 40 inside.

According to proprietor Carmela Demarco, alfresco dining accounts for just 15 to 20 per cent of the business.

“Inclement weather makes it impossible for people to eat and be comfortable outside,” she explains.

Financing the alfresco area adds up to $1000 in council fees per annum, which doesn’t include the extra time and expense of positioning the furniture everyday and ensuring the area is kept spotless. She also has a few problems with customers
“forgetting” to pay after a meal outside.

“We have had instances of people leaving—but they’re very few and far between. There are no strategies in place for that—we can’t chase people down the street… 99 per cent of our patrons are lovely and would never intentionally leave without paying.”

It can be argued that the outdoor dining at Crown in Melbourne is one of the great attractions of that edifice of entertainment, and adds enormously to the ambience of Southbank.

“The outdoor areas are very popular and are often heavily booked, well in advance. The Brasserie by Philippe Mouchel and Number 8 each seat up to 50 guests in their outdoor terraces,” she says.

“When it is cold or raining, we have gas heaters, so the setting is very special—especially with the view and the gas fire brigades that burst with flames every hour.

General manager of restaurant and catering operations, David Yallouz, says outdoor settings are particularly popular for
special celebrations.

“During summer, our restaurant adjacent to Crown Towers’ spa, Breezes, is busy with a barbecue and always in demand for private cocktail parties and intimate functions like weddings,” he says.

“From a positioning point of view, outdoor dining provides another option for our guests. It used to be that outdoor dining was strictly for more casual affairs, but that’s changing as people spend more of their dayindoors. It also makes a formal occasion feel more relaxed—we want our guests to feel comfortable and welcome, and the terraces definitely help achieve this.

The only extra requirement of the terraces is the waiter stations and additional point-of-sale terminals.

But while outdoor dining may seem romantic, many customers recognise the extra risks of an outdoor venue—especially for special events, Yallouz explains.

“I’d be remiss if I didn’t confess that sometimes Melbourne’s weather can be less than co-operative! For a Christmas function two years ago, it began to hail just before lunch and all the tables had to be moved inside and reset at great speed. Luckily,all our guests were very understanding and the rest of the day was faultless,” he says.

Yallouz says he’s also never had a guest do a runner.

“In all our time, we’ve never had any trouble, thankfully.”

R&CA award winner Paladarr Thai Issan in Alphington is a successful Thai barbecue restaurant with a garden area at the back of the premises. Owner Bryan Derrick says the garden adds significant ambiance to the three-year-old restaurant—even though it’s mainly only used in the summer months.

“We cleaned up a backyard
that was filled about 20 years of discarded rubbish from various restaurants. We planted it out with Thai plants and strung up thousands of tiny bud lights and it makes a great addition to the overall feel of the place.”

Derrick now wants to install a heating system and admits Melbourne’s four-seasons-in-one-day climate isn’t perfect for running an alfresco area.

“We have to warn guests when we are fully booked that if it rains, we cannot move their booking inside—so it has its challenges. That said, when we do the Thai barbecue on a warm evening, the atmosphere is just terrific and people really enjoy being able to prepare their dishes themselves, if they wish. In winter, we run braziers and guests head out there for a cigarette and a drink. Once we have some extra roofing and heating in place, it will extend the life of the dining area considerably.”

Frank Wilden, a proprietor at Oyster Little Bourke in Melbourne, says his alfresco area is integral to the image of his contemporary bistro.

“It’s fabulous for us—happy people sitting outside on a glorious Melbourne day sharing cold oysters and champagne is something that is pretty darn appealing.”

Wilden brings some solid credentials to his comments, having been a restaurateur for more than 15 years, including at some big-name establishments like Coast and Manta Ray in Sydney, The Duck at Crown Casino and The Venetian in Melbourne.

While his outdoor dining area accounts for about 25 per cent of his seating space, in reality it only generates about 10 per cent of the restaurant’s business.

“It allows us to put the ‘Oyster’ style on and display to passers-by who don’t know us what we do and the popularity of it. It only costs us around $75 a year in terms of council rental fees.”

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