With Valentine's Day around the corner, we've short-listed the Sydney restaurants that satisfy our max-romance criteria. Namely, they either have spectacular water views for gazing (or for when you need a break from staring lovingly into each other's eyes) or have the dining-room lights permanently set to "dim and intimate"; and they're one of the city's top-rated restaurants as listed in the Gourmet Traveller 2020 Australian Restaurant Guide.
Book a table. Grab your paramour. BYO serenading violinist. It's going to be a romantic evening.
Alberto's embraces its billing as Restaurant Hubert's Italian cousin with gusto: same soft-lit charm, smooth service, plush carpet and wood panelling, but a little more bustle, a little more jostling for space, and (just maybe) a little more fun. It's a return to new-wave Italo form for chef Daniel Pepperell, too, who keeps one eye on tradition and the other on how to advance it. The Amatriciana is proof of the former: house-made bucatini in a sauce of guanciale and its rendered fat with pecorino, chilli and tomato that's both rich and slippery, in a good way. For the latter, take the trippa alla Romana, melting into the sauce the way it might in a trattoria in Testaccio, but spun in the direction of butter chicken with deft deployment of cream and spice. Sommelier Andy Tyson's wine offer is more natural than at Hubert, but excitement is the through-line, be it from one of many bottles under $100 or back-vintage Barolo from a section labelled "Il Rosso Divino". A crisp cannolo is a cracking finish, but daily changing gelati – mango and sticky rice, perhaps – capture Alberto's in a single scoop: technically astute and bristling with adventure.
17-19 Alberta St,Sydney, NSW, albertoslounge.com
First, Aria is an ambassador. There's the view straight down the barrel of the Opera House. The wine list that positions exceptional local bottles alongside international benchmarks. The menu that shows off pristine Australian produce, and a chef, Joel Bickford, set on eking the very best from them. But as much as this has always been a place that sets a bar for Australian dining, that hasn't meant standing still. Aria 2019 is a restaurant of kangaroo tartare concealed under delicate folds of beetroot, of yabbies curled in tomato broth with ribbons of jamón, of skinned snapper fried crisp and served with beach greens, finger lime and a lick of beurre blanc. Desserts – and a course of Moreton Bay bug with congee, broth, shiitake mushrooms, and silky sheet made from smoked scallop – can have a lot going on, but the flavours are clear, the presentation refined, and when things are good, they're spot on. Sure, floor staff can miss details and be distracted by shiny things, but gloss and sparkle have always held sway here. And who can argue with that view?
1 Macquarie St, Sydney, NSW, ariasydney.com.au
Special occasions and Bennelong go together. Set within the concrete belly of an Opera House sail, the hushed dining room spotlights Indigenous art, brass-gold Tom Dixon lamps and lantern-lit tables with leather chairs, a long side a floor-to-ceiling harbour view. It's a stellar stage for an assured take on event dining conducted in three succinct acts. The show might open with brown butter playing as a nutty backbeat to lemon emulsion accompanying just-cooked Moreton Bay bug, then follow with pull-apart confit duck leg that reaches a higher note amid a textural harmony of brittle skin, sweet persimmon and pickled black fungus. Come dessert, the signature pavlova, meringue sails soaring, borders on kitsch and cloying, but is kept in check by a sharp passionfruit sauce. Better to order the Neenish tart, a wafer-crisp pastry shell filled with bittersweet chocolate cut with a raspberry ripple and covered with yin-yang icing – a sophisticated coda expressed with mirror-glaze precision. The hefty wine list leans strongly Australian, ranging from renowned shiraz viognier to single-vineyard Beechworth roussanne. Service is confident and charming, perfectly in tune with the whole production, ensuring any occasion at Bennelong is just that little bit extra.
Sydney Opera House, Bennelong Point, Sydney, bennelong.com.au
From ex-pollies enjoying an espresso over the paper to couples in need of a late-night bowl of scampi spaghetti, this café-turned-trattoria is woven into many a local's weekly routine. There might be a wait. A glass of Tuscan sangiovese from the mostly Italian, largely natural wine list might take a while to arrive. But such insouciance is all part of the Italo charm this Potts Point staple exudes. When the waiter is there, they're there – accented, crisply uniformed and prepped to decode the Italian scribbles on the blackboard against a soundtrack of jazz and a room of soft lighting. They'll explain the entrée simply listed as "polipo", perhaps, as thinly sliced, tender octopus dolloped with vibrant capsicum purée and lifted with cups of pickled Cipollini onion. Or how the sheets of green spinach pasta in that bubbling-hot, cheesy lasagna are made daily on the marble bench that, come dinner, becomes a communal dining table. Glide a spoon through the marsala-spiked tiramisù, order an Amaro Lucano and sit back to revel in the wonder that is this neighbourhood favourite.
12-16 Challis Ave, Potts Point, Sydney, NSW, fratelliparadiso.com/
Icebergs Dining Room & Bar
A plate of blushing tuna tartare, dotted with beetroot-pickled radish, fennel pollen and trout roe is set down by a waiter in a white jacket. There's loud applause. But it's not for the beauty of the dish, nor the theatre of mixing it tableside. It's for a proposal, the second of the day. There's much to love about Icebergs – where else can you feel the ocean breeze on your face as you fork hand-rolled spinach spaghetti with nubs of slow-roasted lamb, eggplant and juniper spice? Or pesce del giorno: perhaps blue-eye trevalla with skin of glass-like crispness, and scales of anchovy-buttered kipflers, oxalis, cime di rapa, radish and briny Alto olives. There's a brightness to the modern Italo-style menu, matched by an equally spirited floor team, wine list and soundtrack. Tiramisù for two, meanwhile, is well worthy of its Icebergs legend status, a treasure chest of jelly cubes, coffee sorbet and more. What on earth is in it? "Everything," says the sommelier. Don't wait for an occasion. Just say I do.
1 Notts Ave, Bondi Beach, Sydney, NSW, idrb.com
Sudachi and zibibbo. Suckling pig and shishito. Sashimi and gnocchi. "You are confined only by the walls you create" reads the text printed on the glass walls hemming in LuMi. It's a little hammy, sure, but the mood is right on: in bringing a Japanese mood to bear on Italian cuisine, Federico Zanellato treads territory few chefs dare to. But his scope is far wider: a single scallop, sliced and put back together with interleaved slivers of rhubarb and jalapeño, for example, is listed on the menu as ceviche, but plays like sashimi, and spins in a new wave crudo direction with a base of buffalo curd and rhubarb vinegar. A pumpkin and goat's curd tartlet capped with crunchy pepitas, or a single raviolo filled with liquefied pecorino and celeriac and coated in duck jus? That's just good eating. LuMi is a package deal, the technique near faultless, the room warm, the service relaxed, the pacing spot on, all complemented by a drinks list that does classic and interesting in both wine and sake territory. For dessert, a simple buffalo milk ice-cream with popcorn and coffee caramel keeps creativity close, but deliciousness closer. If these are the walls, LuMi's bounds are endless.
56 Pirrama Rd, Pyrmont, Sydney, NSW, lumidining.com
Seiobo does fine dining like no one else, concerned not with fuss or fronting, but with exploring the breadth of cuisines in the Caribbean, unpicking threads of flavour in home-style dishes and spinning them with Australian produce to create something entirely new. The range is impressive, branching out from chef Paul Carmichael's roots in Barbados and Puerto Rico into wider island territory– Haitian creole tops crisp green banana, and coconut rundown, a Tobagonian specialty, underscores Tasmanian sea urchin brightened with horseradish. More impressive is the evolution. Where once marron was split and grilled over charcoal and decorated with leaves, bells and whistles, it's now chopped, piled into a bowl and sauced in a spicy, chunky Puerto Rican-style sofrito. Fried coconut bakes showered in fresh coconut come alongside for dabbing and mopping. A central kitchen backed by a gleaming cabinet stacked with tropical produce keeps the focus here and now, staff presenting dishes with deep knowledge of origins and preparations, the drinks offer bright and exciting. This is dining freed from convention, humble and elevated all at once, a third way. What a time to be alive.
The Star, 80 Pyrmont St, Pyrmont, seiobo.momofuku.com
It could be one of the darkest dining rooms in town, but eight years in, the ideas on the plate and in the glass at Monopole are brighter and sharper than ever. This is a playground for discerning palates, where cashed-up couples canoodle on soft leather banquettes over Champagne and oysters while solo diners on spartan bar stools pore over Nick Hildebrandt's riveting wine list. Even if the game plan involves nothing more than a glass of dusky sangiovese and some house-made charcuterie, snacking here feels just that little bit smarter. For the bolder, and the hungrier, Brent Savage's intricate, idiosyncratic share plates hold the answers. Just-seared strips of kangaroo loin collide with toasted hazelnuts and pickled lilly pilly in a provocative riff on carpaccio. Woody Sichuan spices lend depth of flavour to a flawlessly roasted, dry-aged duck breast dressed with cherry wood oil. Even potatoes get the luxury treatment, salt-baked and crushed into a discus drenched in slushy seaweed butter of eye-opening intensity. The fine line between wine bar and restaurant is no easy path to tread, yet Monopole follows it right to the end, elegantly and effortlessly.
71a Macleay St, Potts Point, Sydney, NSW, monopolesydney.com.au
Nowhere at Quay is the interplay of texture and rare ingredients so striking than in a small bowl of hand-harvested seafood dressed with virgin soy sauce, aged brown rice vinegar and laver. Coating buttery scallops, crunchy baby octopus, slippery strawberry clams and crisp slivers of palm heart, the dressing enhances and underlines each aspect. As a whole, it's complete; a lesson in taste and judgement. And this is just one in a flurry of courses, each presented to a backdrop of Harbour, Bridge and House in a space that's still revelling in the lightness given to it by last year's renovation. It's big-ticket stuff, and the staff are suitably informed and generous, the drinks offer extensive, the set-pieces timed to the second. Precision rules on the menu, too: marron, prised from its shell, is filled with yuzu jam and topped with shellfish emulsion and a bloom of edible flowers; pork jowl, soft and giving, is crowned with curls of abalone and served with a rich pig's trotter broth. Truth on the palate, beauty on the plate, a little levity in the desserts – Quay still holds court with pomp and ceremony. Bow down.
Upper Level, Overseas Passenger Terminal, The Rocks, quay.com.au
Whether midday or midnight, a frisson of celebration is ever-present in the parallel universe of Hubert. Descend the winding staircase and come hither into a faux Belle Époque salon of perpetual candlelight and popping Champagne corks. Lovers canoodle in the tête-à-tête booths; a band limbers up for jazz and chansons; a magnum of Louis Roederer arrives at an already lively table of revellers. The hefty magnum collection is part of a stellar cellar that ranges wide and wisely. The party starts with a bang, perhaps an extravagant mouthful of trout roe, avruga caviar and sea urchin, or a deep-fried molten ball of Gruyère. The French-ish menu nods and winks at tradition: roasted snails with house XO sauce, and gratin spicy with kimchi. The crowd-pleasing whole roast chicken, however, needs no twist. It's straightforward and superb, tender from brining and steaming, golden from frying, with a simple bread sauce and a dash of green garlic oil. Just when you think the party has peaked, out come a couple of support acts, a slice of banoffee and a Gallic crème caramel, which prompts another look at the wine list. No, the party has barely started.
15 Bligh St, Sydney, restauranthubert.com