It is a dinner time more in step with the Shady Pines retirement village, or the early-to-bed, early-to-cardio superficiality of the Gold Coast.
But Melbourne, once the exemplar of late night sophistication, has embraced the early dinner. The 6pm time slot is the new peak, but some restaurants are starting evening meal covers at — gasp — 4pm.
Shannon Martinez at her vegan restaurant Smith and Daughters: ” 9pm is definitely our quietest sitting, which it never used to be.”Credit:Simon Schluter
Melbourne, this is no joke. Undoubtedly, everyone’s reaction to COVID-19 and the desire for an early night is a key cause.
“I love this time, it is like a late lunch/early dinner,” said Hannah Green, co-owner of the cosy bar/restaurant Etta in Brunswick East, which The Age’s Good Food Guide said “would certainly be near the top” of a list of the most Melbourne restaurants in Melbourne.
When lockdown restrictions eased in October last year, Etta opened early initially out of necessity as health orders limited the restaurant to seating only 20 diners at a time.
“Post-pandemic we actually started opening our bookings for 4pm for dinner services,” Green said. “It was amazing, it is like the whole other part of business that we weren’t seeing before.
Hannah Green owns Brunswick East’s Etta Restaurant, which has early dinner sittings.Credit:Darrian Traynor
“That has been the silver lining of the pandemic for me. It has really made us throw the rule book out the window and find out what people want.”
And the trend is plainly visible in the statistics collected by online booking platform OpenTable, which is used by restaurants in 80 countries.
Anthea Loucas Bosha thinks Melbourne’s late night culture is changing. Credit:Jason Loucas
“We’ve not only seen a significant increase in diner demand in Melbourne post-pandemic — with overall reservations for the first half of 2022 up 160 per cent compared to the same period in 2019 — but fundamental shifts in when Melburnians are eating out,” said Drew Bowering, senior director, Asia-Pacific, of OpenTable.
“Early lunch, from 10am to 12pm, and early dinner, from 4pm to 7pm bookings are trending, with a three-fold increase in reservations compared to the same period in 2019, suggesting Melburnians are throwing out the old rule book and dining on a new schedule.”
Anthea Loucas Bosha, chief executive of Food and Drink Victoria, which runs the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, said the trend was “completely an anathema to Melbourne’s culture”.
“Are we really turning away from a late night dining culture? If no-one wants to have dinner at 9pm maybe there’s some learned behaviour over COVID.”
Melbourne’s winter and family dining preferences were two key reasons, according to hospitality consultant Frank Wilden.
Add to that the feeling that everyone is under additional time pressure, and often a lack of a commute from work.
“There are a few things that tie into this, Wilden says. “And restaurant reservations are increasingly limited to time slots and sittings. Some of this will change with daylight saving and better weather.”
Daylight saving starts on Sunday and restaurants are rolling out parklets, or al fresco platforms, to take advantage of warmer weather and the expected surge in demand for street dining.
“We are all really looking forward to spring, I think Melbourne needs it,” said chef Shannon Martinez, who recently hosted US pop superstar Billie Eilish and family at her vegan mega-restaurant Smith and Daughters in Collingwood. She now opens her venue earlier, at 5.30pm Tuesday to Thursday and at 4pm on Friday and Saturday for aperitivo, a mix of light snacks and cocktails.
“We couldn’t fill 6pm to save ourselves before COVID and now it is the most requested slot,” Martinez said.
“I think that is because so many people are working from home and by 4.30pm they are sick of wearing their pyjamas and want a bevy and a feed.
“ 9pm is definitely our quietest sitting, which it never used to be.”
Not surprisingly, Eilish and family were impeccably on trend for her dining appointment.
“She came at 6pm with her whole family. She was very early. And that was her day off as well.”
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