Hey, big spender: why splurging is back on the menu

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Just when you thought that the restaurant industry would be providing some solace to the casual diner of modest means, we’re getting caviar trolleys and lobster burgers. What on earth is going on? I haven’t seen so many big-ticket items on menus since the 1980s, which was also the last time I could afford them. Not only that, but the trappings are back. Linen tablecloths. Silver accoutrements. Beeswax candles. Velvet booths. Gueridon (trolley) service. Carpet! And marble! So much marble.

Restaurateurs report that while dining numbers may be down, customer spend is up. “It’s hard to believe, but there’s so much money around,” says one, who calls his restaurant a “revolving door” for lobster, scampi and Western Australian crystal crab.

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Illustration by Drew Aitken.Credit:

Cashed-up non-travellers are doing whatever they can to pretend they’re in Paris, Monaco, Shanghai or Dubai. They’re running their finger down the wagyu steak prices and stopping on the highest, not the lowest. They’re actively looking for supplements on truffles and caviar rather than avoiding them. They’re splurging, trying to wipe away the memory of all those lockdown takeaway meals; all that lasagne.

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You see it happening in Melbourne at the glamorous Gimlet, with its raised tiers of tables, caviar served in antique silver and 1930s cocktail service, and will see it again when the dazzling Society restaurant opens in Collins Place in July. In the Harbour City, the $6 million fit-out of Seta Sydney – all soaring marble columns and libraries of wine, whisks me back to the grand Italian restaurants of yesteryear, when dining out was a matter of dressing up and spending up.

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Here, the kitchen is the stage, chefs moving about in tall white chef hats. (Chef hats!) At Mimi’s in Coogee, staff wheel the caviar trolley to your table as if on the Concorde. It’s $36 a bump (a spoonful placed tenderly on your clenched fist) with a shot of frozen vodka, and they’re happy to circle back if you want more.

This is all very weird, but it’s also very understandable. What has been missing all this time? The precious feeling of being spoilt, of being looked after. The magical, communal act of hospitality – which is nothing more than people making other people happy in a public place with good food and wine. It’s a return to restaurants being restorative, transformative. The healing has begun.

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