Are restaurants a waste of money?

Pictured: Café Di Stasio in Melbourne’s St Kilda.

Pictured: Café Di Stasio in Melbourne’s St Kilda.

I’ve been to about 15 restaurants in Australia this year. On two of those occasions I was the guest of the restaurant. On every other occasion I paid for the meal myself, from my bank account. (There are no expense accounts in my world.) My credit card statements tell me that I spent about $80 each time. If I maintain this spending habit, as history suggests I’m likely to do, by December I will have spent up to $2500 on restaurants.

I know there’ll be restaurant people and restaurant-goers out there who might be aghast at my low expenditure when dining out. They might find my restaurant behaviour — of asking for tap water, choosing wines from the lower-priced end of the list, often declining dessert — reprehensible. (I’m on a journalist’s salary, not an investment banker’s.) Restaurant people, food people, tend to be big spenders. They see it as their duty to support their comrades, to show off their knowledge and sophistication, to order from the “imported” (read, “Burgundy”) section of the list, to tip with an extravagant flourish. I would suggest that such “industry” people breathe often-rarefied air. The real world is not their stomping ground.

There would be many, many more people aghast at what they would consider to be my profligate expenditure (don’t forget, the average Australian income is considerably below a hundred grand a year). $2500-plus a year on restaurants? You’re kidding! Someone with altruistic tendencies I once knew reproached me for my restaurant habit. I should, he insisted, donate what I spent on restaurants to good causes. (He then suggested that he and his unpublished poetry were good causes...) Others I know who have a single-minded focus on reducing their mortgage think I’m nuts — that eating at restaurants is a waste of money. And they’re not alone.

Restaurateurs in any doubt about the fact that a huge number of people think restaurants are a waste of money need only look at the hundreds of comments at the bottom of articles published in The Sydney Morning Herald and elsewhere in the past fortnight or so about what has been described as Sydney’s restaurant “crisis”.


But first, a recap: on Friday, chef Justin North and his wife, Georgia, closed their acclaimed Becasse and Quarter 21 restaurants in Westfield Sydney after failing to trade their way out of voluntary administration. Other Sydney restaurants to have closed in the past months include Manly Pavilion, Cotton Duck, Montpellier Public House, and Dietmar Sawyere's Ad Lib (Double Bay and Pymble) and the lovely, lovely Berowra Waters. Predictably, restaurateurs are pointing the finger at economic uncertainty, fear of the carbon tax, staff wages and penalty rates and tight diners who don’t understand them.

''It's tough. If it keeps going like this there will be no restaurants in Sydney,'' one restaurateur said in a Herald article. For heaven’s sake. Enough of the amateur dramatics. The restaurant business has never been an easy business. Are there any that are? And, while some are busily proclaiming a restaurant apocalypse, the real story is more complex, as it usually is. My clever colleague, Herald economics writer Jessica Irvine, confirmed some figures for me: “Updated retail sales data for May (show) spending on ‘cafes, restaurants and takeaway food services’ was the strongest growing segment for the month, and is now up 8.2 per cent over the year!”

Of course, that 8% figure needs some qualification: It’s a national average, so West Australians feeling mining’s Midas touch might account for some of that increase. And by all accounts people are eating out more frequently — more scrambled eggs at their local cafe, more small plates at their new small bars (especially in Sydney where the effect of relatively new licensing laws allowing small bars is still being felt) — so our disposable food income is being spread more widely. But the fact remains, Australians are spending more on eating out. And if the industry is so doomed, why are we not hearing of restaurant closures in Melbourne or Brisbane? And why, when I go to Porteño in Surry Hills do I still need to wait for a table, nearly two years after it opened. And how is it that chef Stefano Manfredi’s $120 four-course truffle dinner at Balla at Star last week sold out and he ended up putting a second dinner on?

“You’ve got to be able to trade in any climate,” says Sydney hotelier Fraser Short, who isn’t paying much attention to the gloom-and-doom headlines. In August he will open the Morrison Bar & Oyster Room, a New York-style brasserie with “broad appeal” in Sydney’s financial district with former Astral chef Sean Connolly at the burners. “There are a lot of great restaurants out there that are putting great service and exceptional food on the table that are trading really well,” says Short.

It’s clear that reports of the death of restaurants are greatly exaggerated. It’s also clear that rather than throwing blame at the economy we should be looking at the individual circumstances of the restaurants, bad business decisions, empire building, ambition and ego, bad concepts.

Melbourne restaurateur Ronnie Di Stasio, who for a quarter of a century has steered the eccentric, often brilliant Café Di Stasio in Melbourne’s St Kilda, would seem to be one whose opinion is worth paying attention to in this matter. “There are far too many restaurants; we’re over-serviced,” says Di Stasio, who is currently developing the space adjacent to his restaurant as an “Italian eating bar” — opening the first week of November. “I’d love to see the statistics of how many people open and within five years or less close. They’ve got the wrong idea about restaurants. It’s very hard. I don’t think they realise the sacrifices involved. It’s like having children, you have to attend to them. I also believe in one person, one restaurant. I think the focus has to be there and the attention has to be there. It’s too hard to think of two.”

Di Stasio struggles to understand those with expansionist tendencies: “I don’t know what their end-game is … they certainly don’t make money out of it and, if they’ve got three, one will make money, one loses so they’re back to square one. If you’re there, or you’ve got one place, you can make it happen for a long time.

“There’s another thing too that I don’t think they understand: it’s not instant. A restaurant’s culture has to be more than the flavour of the month; it develops slowly. It’s like watching a small tree grow. There’s nothing instant about restaurants.”

But let’s come back to the court of public opinion, to those hundreds of readers’ comments on articles like this and this. A few examples:

“Patrons are getting less food for their money (and in many cases it is a lot of money) and are also learning that cooking at home can be the way to go for a fraction of the price and the same quality, perhaps the cooking shows on TV have changed the ball game.”

“These days I prefer to eat and entertain at home- I can buy the best ingredients at the markets/ deli and we enjoy making special meals at home- whether we are feeding ourselves or a group of friends. I just can't justify to cost of eating at these restaurants anymore.”

“During the noughties we were all held hostage by the 'big spender' attitude. It was a badge of honour to pay too much for dinning, holidays, clothes and property. Restaurants with business models that still rely on the 'snob factor' won't last as getting value for money is the norm nowadays. People no longer eat out to boast about where they went and how much they paid.”

“After the walnut-infused smoke clears I think you will find that for the price and the poor service overall, the food is just not worth it. There seems to be such a focus on outdoing the chef down the road, collecting gongs and opening another hip restaurant, that the importance of preparing a good meal, served with a smile, has been forgotten.”

A massive number of commenters on articles on this subject over the past two weeks complained about value for money. The fact is, when you’re spending your own money and you’re not an investment banker, a meal out has to be a special experience, whether it’s an $8 taco or a $50 line-caught fish. It has to be something to savour in memory as the flavours fade. And the fact is, there are too many ordinary meals out there, too many ordinary experiences, too many restaurants that just don’t have “it”.

“It’s hard to define what it is, whether it’s magic or just attention to detail or caring or husbandry, I don’t know what it is but you can tell when you walk into a restaurant whether it’s got it or not,” says Di Stasio. “Between hospitality and profit there’s a word in the middle which is missing and it’s called generosity, generosity of spirit and you can see it in the food as well as the staff.”

I’ve been looking back at my credit card statements and trying to remember each of those 15 or so restaurant meals I’ve eaten this year. And the fact is, only about four of them were memorable. I would not return with any haste to most of them. Perhaps this is the real issue. Perhaps the magic is, in too many cases, missing.