Simon Hill has combined a methodical approach with a ‘passion before profit’ philosophy to create some of Brisbane’s most exciting restaurants
If sport and celebrity have taught us nothing else, they have shown us the importance of quitting while you’re on top. There’s nothing less comfortable to watch than the slow slide into irrelevance. The trick, as always, is picking where the top is—frequently you only realise that when well into the downward slide.
Simon Hill was pretty confident he’d picked the peak with Isis Brasserie, a multi-award winning Brisbane institution and darling of the town’s foodie set. In 2008, not long after picking up a Best Restaurant award in the Awards for Excellence, he closed the restaurant’s doors. “Nearly everyone told me I was insane,” he says of the decision.
Another reading of the move is that he has a tendency to put passion before profits. “Where you see an example of him placing passion before profits is when he closed and changed Isis to do something new and exciting,” says local critic and former restaurateur, Tony Harper. “There was no common sense in doing that.”
Yet he took the risk, and it appears to have paid off. What’s more, with the benefit of hindsight it’s clear Hill picked the right time.
“The answer as to why we shut down Isis and opened Ortiga is both simple and complex,” he says now. “We wanted to stay ahead of the game, basically. Isis was getting old. We could have given it a makeover and kept it going for a few more months, but we felt that the nature of dining was changing, and we wanted to completely refresh and come up with something different. Aria (Matt Moran’s fine dining restaurant) was breathing down our necks, and we needed to make a bold statement to stay ahead of the game. If we hadn’t done it, by now Isis would be the eighth-ranked fine diner at best.”
Isis opened in 1997, it was awarded every major accolade available to it in Queensland, including the American Express and Sunday Mail’s Restaurant of the Year awards. In 2005, Isis reached the pinnacle of Brisbane dining, being awarded Restaurant of the Year by both Restaurant and Catering Queensland and The Courier-Mail before closing in 2008.
Hill’s initial formal hospitality training occurred in 1989 at the Inter-Continental Sydney, after several years gaining experience in some of Sydney’s smaller, boutique restaurants. He spent six years with the Inter-Continental chain, in Sydney and London, and worked at the Mayfair Inter-Continental Hotel in the heart of London’s hotel district. While residing in London, Hill spent a year under the tutelage of celebrity chef Brian Turner at his eponymous South Kensington restaurant before opening his first business, a cafe in West Hampstead that remains to this day.
According to Tony Harper, what Isis demonstrated—apart from a commitment to excellent food and service—was Hill’s methodical approach to building and improving his restaurants. “If you go back to when Isis started, it was a good, but modest bistro,” Harper says. “But Simon has a knack for doing things patiently and methodically, improving and tweaking. Isis was open for more than a decade, maybe 12 years, and every year he finessed it. If you track Isis from opening to closing, it was a completely different restaurant—it went from being a bistro to being an icon restaurant.”
That methodical approach is an indication of his depth of understanding of both the hospitality business, and the Brisbane market. Harper says: “A lot of people in the restaurant business are very emotive, and respond in an emotive manner to what happens around them, but Simon’s totally the opposite of that.”
Hill says Ortiga was specifically developed for his Brisbane clientele, and to showcase the talents of his chef, Pablo Tordesillas, who was formerly his head chef at Bar Alto. He is very careful to point out that it was in no way influenced by the trend for tapas bars that have been springing up in Sydney and Melbourne over the past few years.
“You talk about your concept for a new restaurant over a period of months, or even years, not days,” he says, adding, “this concept [Ortiga], which started as a tapas bar, morphed into what it is now over a period of time. When we found what we wanted to do, I was confident it would be successful. I have some understanding of the market, and people say things like, ‘This restaurant has a Melbourne feel’ or whatever, whereas Ortiga is clearly Spanish, but also tailor-made for our Brisbane clientele.
“There was no influence from the south at all. Pablo is the inspiration for the restaurant and it has more to do with his passion for Spain than anything from Sydney or Melbourne. We were almost wary about it looking like ‘the next big thing’. When we were talking to the architects, the brief was ‘no bulls, no Spanish colours’. We wanted rustic tapas upstairs and an elegant restaurant downstairs, and we wanted the architects to design something beautiful. We wanted to showcase our wine collection, our food and service. We didn’t want pictures of matadors.”
“We could have given it a makeover and kept it going for a few more months, but we also felt that the nature of dining was changing.” Simon Hill, Ortiga and Bar Alto, Brisbane
Ortiga isn’t Hill’s only property in Brisbane—he also has, as previously mentioned, Bar Alto, a mid-market diner at the Brisbane Powerhouse, on the banks of Brisbane River beside New Farm Park. And although it targets a very different market to Ortiga, according to Tony Harper you can immediately see Hill’s hand in each property.
“If a lot of other restaurateurs had done Alto, you wouldn’t have a menu as interesting,” he says. “You can have a terrific meal, served with the same level of service as Ortiga—I mean those same little things that make service good, although at Ortiga there is more bell and whistles, obviously. That same attention to detail he instils in staff in both places. It would have been easy in Alto to just do easy food, but he doesn’t do that.”
In fact, it would have been reasonable to assume that when the recent floods hit Brisbane that a mid-market restaurant like Alto would be a kind-of life buoy for Hill. Both restaurant’s were above the high-water line (even if Alto was “an island” for a few days), but the way their customers returned over the following weeks gives an interesting insight into the resilience of fine dining. Not to mention the difficulty of running a restaurant in a disaster zone.
“For a full week afterwards you couldn’t get food at all,” he explains. “And on top of that, it was almost in bad taste to open your restaurant and start flogging your wares while so many other business were still suffering. Having a fully-staffed restaurant closed for a couple of weeks—and we have 60 staff between the two restaurants—was incredibly difficult. There’s been a hangover to that, but we were staggered how quickly business came back to Ortiga. Alto was much more difficult. For weeks afterwards people were coming down to Alto and saying I didn’t think you’d be open. Ortiga was much faster to recover. I think it was down to the clientele—the well-heeled will always be well-heeled. But being on the water, less expensive places found it tougher. I think it also came down to people who had a story to tell, and if they told it well, they got the attention of the public and media. We didn’t really have anything to say other than ‘We’re still here’.”
The local appeal of restaurants like Ortiga and Alto may be both their strength and weakness—it’s difficult to replicate a successful concept if it’s as specific as Hill’s. However, Hill says, “Ortiga was never really designed to make a lot of money. It’s a labour of love. I can’t imagine there would be any cost benefit at the top level of dining anyway. There’s always going to be a high cost for ingredients, staff and so on.
“I think you can come up with a restaurant based on concept alone. It’s just not something I want to do. A lot of people do that, and very successful businesses are run like that. They’re lower-risk, but we do this for reasons other than money. I still want to be part of an organisation that believes in what it’s doing. Bar Alto is different to Ortiga, but the philosophy behind both, in my opinion, is ethically sound. It’s exactly the same at Ortiga, there just more bells and whistles. The same ethos runs through both. We accept less percentage profit margin and are lucky that our restaurants do quite well, so we can have decent lives and be proud of what we do at the same time.”