When you think of Australian cuisine, Outback Steakhouse might be the first thing that springs to mind. While there’s nothing wrong with Outback (because bloomin’ onion!), there’s so much more to the Australian dining story. Food culture in Australia is on fire right now, becoming ever more sophisticated, innovative, distinctive and diverse and rightly claiming its place among the greats on the stage of international culinary destinations.
And like its food, dining Down Under has its own distinct flavor and might be different than what you’re used to back home. To get a fair dinkum Aussie restaurant experience, we recommend you come prepared. We spoke to some of the country’s most prestigious restaurateurs for the inside dish on Australian restaurant etiquette.
Sharing dishes is a massive trend.
Asian, Italian, Greek, Middle Eastern, Latin American, native — you name the cuisine and an Australian restaurant will find a way to break it down into shared plates so that everyone can sample across the menu. “When we first opened Chin Chin in Melbourne in 2011, we were probably the leaders to do multiple-course sharing-style dinners in Australia, where everything is plonked down in the middle of the table to share,” says Ben James, group venue manager of The Lucas Group (which also owns Melbourne’s Baby and Kong). “Now everyone seems to be following suit. It’s pretty well commonplace now.”
Casual but neat attire is the baseline.
Australians are very laid-back by nature but don’t be fooled – we’re not slobs. “At Quay, we have a very strong policy on clothing,” says John Fink, creative director of The Fink Group (owners of much-lauded Sydney restaurants Quay, Bennelong, and Otto Ristorante). “If you turn up in tracky daks [i.e. sweatpants], a pair of thongs [flip flops], and a t-shirt, we’ll ask you to go back to your hotel room and get changed. At Bennelong, there isn’t a policy per se, but if someone turned up in an old pair of shorts and a singlet [tank top] we might say, ‘Aw, mate, do you mind?’”
Australian wait staff act more like your mate than your server.
“We’re quite informal,” says Timmeon Parlane, general manager of Cafe Sydney. “We’re always told by our American guests that they really enjoy our casualness and directness and the easy rapport. The relationship between our staff and the customer is much friendlier than in other countries — while we’re quite aware of who is paying the bill, it’s very egalitarian.”
Learn the Australian menu sequence: the entrée comes first, followed by the main course and dessert.
And, in Australia, a salad is served with the main course, not as an entrée. “This can be confusing for our American customers,” admits Parlane. “People often try to use the terminology that they use at home or expect things to be done the same way, and that can make it a bit difficult to get the communication flowing nicely.”
Tasting your wine before it’s poured is seen as kind of silly.
“Almost ninety percent of bottles from here are screw caps,” says Steve Scott, senior operations manager at the Seagrass Hospitality Group (owners of The Meat & Wine Co, Ribs & Burgers, Hunter & Barrel, and Butcher and the Farmer, all located in Sydney). “So it does seem a bit pretentious when you’re not doing the full cork service. Most Australians wave that part off, and say, ‘Just pour.’”
Alcohol serves are very precise.
When you order wine by the glass, you might be surprised when your server pours out an amount that, by U.S. standards at least, looks a bit stingy. “The standard pour is one-hundred and fifty milliliters, and that is a legality in Australia,” explains Steve Scott. “Anyone who works in hospitality here must take a course about the R.S.A. [responsible service of alcohol]; you can’t work in a restaurant unless you have that certificate. And if you serve your guests anything other than the standard pour, you’re legally obligated to tell them.” The drink driving laws are seriously stringent in Australia, too; you’ve been warned.
Do not expect the bill to be brought to your table until you’ve asked for it. (And yes, we call it the ‘bill’, not the ‘check’.)
“To Australians, presenting the bill before it’s requested is deemed as pushy and presumptuous,” says Denis Lucey, co-owner of Bottega in Melbourne. “We don’t want you to feel like we’re pushing you out.”
A 10 percent tip is the standard.
But sometimes tipping can be a bit awkward, due to the payment system used in most major Australian restaurants. “If you’re using a card, you’re going to get this terminal presented to you and need to enter your pin number,” Denis Lucey explains. “That can be a very awkward situation for both the customer and the waiter, who has to point out to the customer the moment in the process in which you can leave a tip, instead of presenting a receipt where you can discreetly add one in.”
It’s perfectly okay to split the bill and divvy it up equally or in separate amounts.
Especially now, with the rise of point-of-sale transaction tablets that simplify the process. “People split bills with us in our restaurants all the time,” says John Fink. “We use an app that gives you payment amounts and percentage options for tipping, you tap your card, and it prints out the receipt for you. It’s so easy.”
If you want to get into a popular restaurant, book a table at 9PM.
Australians dine out on the early side – peak booking time in Sydney is 6:00-6.30PM; in Melbourne, it’s 6.30–7PM. “People aren’t interested in booking any later than seven-thirty,” says Chris Handel, general manager of Andrew McConnell Restaurants (Cumulus Inc, Cutler & Co, and Supernormal, all in Melbourne). “You find that the food and service will be better at the later time slot when it’s not so busy. Those of us in the industry will always book a later table for that reason.”
Can’t get into the restaurant you’re dying to try? Order in.
“Through new channels like Uber Eats, Deliveroo, and Foodora, there’s been a shift in the way customers have engaged with fine dining and high-volume restaurants,” says Troy McDonagh, group CEO of Made Establishment, the brains behind Melbourne eateries Gazi, The Press Club, and Hellenic Republic. “At Gazi, which is in the city, we can deliver an order to your hotel room within about twenty minutes.”
Have you dined out Down Under? Share your Australian restaurant etiquette tips with us here or over on Facebook, G+, Instagram, Pinterest, or Twitter. Headed to the AU? Find the right table on OpenTable Australia.
Bonnie Vaughan is a writer and editor based in Sydney, Australia.