There’s something brewing in the heart of Little Collins Street. It could be the numerous jars of potato skins or cabbage fermenting away in Sunda’s latest sibling, Aru Restaurant, or perhaps it’s Khanh Nguyen’s playful and determined spirit. Whatever it is, it’s a welcome change in a relatively underserved pocket of the CBD. Owned by Adi Halim (owner of Sunda and the Hotel Windsor) and helmed by executive chef Khanh Nguyen (Mr Wong, Bentley Restaurant and Bar and Cirrus), the venue heroes pre-colonial techniques of cookery across Southeast Asia – “cooking over fire, preserving, fermenting, dry-aging, curing and all those kinds of treatments” says Nguyen.
Casual dining is something at which Melbourne has always excelled (sorry but not sorry, Sydney). While some other cities exhibit a gulf between the heady heights of fine dining and the ground floor entry point of a cheap eat, Melbourne’s restaurant landscape stops at all floors.
And that’s why Time Out’s shortlist for the Best Casual Diner in 2022 had to sadly leave many beloved restaurants by the wayside in order to anoint the incredible achievements of a hugely disparate group of cuisines: Thi Le’s Laotian triumph Jeow, Khanh Nguyen’s wild Oz- Vietnamese experiment Aru, the New Nordic stylings of Freyja, neo-Filipino Serai and the Chinese Moonhouse, as well as Hardware Club, Osteria Renata and Hope St Radio doing it for the Italians and Victoria by Farmer’s Daughters doing it for the state.
So what unites these nine contenders? You could call them all serious diners in casual clothing. They all approach the restaurant dark arts with a steely commitment to excellent food. Yet they pack it with plenty of personality.
Call it fun dining if you will. We’re becoming used to hearing soundtracks heavy on the hip hop or whatever the kitchen wants to play (that’s why Shazam has become the most useful app to use at the dining table). Sharing is de rigueur as the ye olde notion of individual dishes gets jettisoned for a democratic free-for-all (although please, we don’t need the “concept” explained anymore). As for snowy white linen, who needs it?
If you’re lucky you’ll be a regular who swings by once a month or every week to check out the evolution of your favourite place, but the members of this list are equally adept at making a night out feel like an occasion. And for that, we also have the front-of-house staff to thank. Like ducks paddling madly underwater while appearing serene on the surface, keeping the casual dining roller coaster on the rails is an underappreciated art. Respect.