Back in 2018, the little Ripponlea restaurant that could rose to a surprise #20 entry on the much-debated (and occasionally controversial) World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. It overtook Brae’s entry the year before at #44 and set Attica firmly in the minds of the international jetset. Ben Shewry’s experimental and unflinchingly Australian ten-course degustation has since tumbled out of the top 50, this year not even making the cut in the top 100. So what does this all mean for one of the most loved and well-known restaurants in the country? Does it still live up to its original hype years later, in 2022? Emphatically, yes.
Make no mistake: the fine dining gods have been smiling on Melbourne this year. We’ve had plenty of reasons to dress up for dinner and treat ourselves to something special, at just the time a bit of indulgence was needed most.
But on this turn around the sun, the gods have a few tricks up their sleeves. The very notion of “fine dining” has slipped its moorings, resulting in a very different beast to the classical notions of starched white linen, stiff formality and best manners.
Sure, you can still go full glam at Grill Americano or Gimlet, two CBD newcomers where the excellent crowd-watching is all part of the fun and the menus, fit-out and sheer attitude will whisk you to yesteryear Paris and New York. Chris Lucas’ glamazon Society fits the bill, too. Perhaps the top hat or tiara will be a little OTT, but they’re all places begging you to dress to Impress.
But beyond those age-old certainties of caviar, Champagne and Instagram, we have Ben Shewry’s Attica remaining the benchmark for envelope-pushing food interrogating the very notion of “Australian” cuisine. There’s also the long-awaited arrival of Nomad, which has deformalised the dinner but kept up the flame-grilled excellence and produce-driven perfection. In the red corner, the hallowed beauty of Warabi showcases the meticulous Japanese art of omakase. And what would people a century ago have made of a place called Enter Via Laundry, where the barrier between chef and guests is whittled down to a mere nub?
So what is fine dining? That, friends, will have as many answers as there are diners in this crazy, topsy-turvy dining age. We can’t mandate the type of cuisine, the setting, the size or the price. Yet we can say with happy certainty that all our fine dining nominees deliver an experience.