Chef Liam Tomlin remembers exactly where he was the night that Cathy Freeman ran the 400 metres. He was at Banc, mid-service: every seat in the much-fêted restaurant was full, while outside, Martin Place thronged with tourists and locals who packed in daily to watch the Olympic Games on supersized screens.
"When her race came on, the entire restaurant got up and left," recalls Tomlin. "They left their food, their wine... everybody walked out onto the street. The staff too, because there was no one left to serve. Then as soon as the race was over, we all came back in and just carried on. It was an amazing atmosphere."
In the year 2000, that atmosphere was everywhere. A mix of new millennium optimism and the heady promise of tourist dollars had swept through the hospitality industry and brought with it a constellation of new restaurant openings. The inner east alone boasted Marque, Otto, Cicada, Salt, Longrain, Buon Ricordo and MG Garage, while Aria, Rockpool, Bel Mondo, Guillaume at Bennelong and Quay vied for attention on the Harbour; and Banc, Forty One, Est, Ampersand and Tetsuya's lit up the city centre.
"There was an abundance of brilliant talent in Sydney and an amazing dining scene," says Tomlin. "In those days, the interior design of restaurants was incredible – a lot of money went into it."
Banc was no exception. It was the kind of peerlessly located, studiedly glamorous hotspot that typified millennium-era Sydney: luxurious, finessed, astonishingly expensive. The dining room was inevitably filled with bankers, lawyers, judges and politicians; high-flyers and powerbrokers who took long lunches on expense accounts amid the green marble and mirrors. The Olympics kicked things up a notch – Tomlin recalls a night it was so busy in Martin Place that they couldn't physically open the front door to the restaurant. They had to bring customers in through the kitchen.
"It was buzzing," says Tetsuya Wakada of the manic, two-and-a-half-week period that Sydney hosted the world's top athletes. What he remembers most about that time were the long, leisurely sittings – even by dégustation standards. "People were very hungry. They wanted the full service: to eat a lot, drink a lot. We're talking 12, 14, 15 courses – and still they didn't have enough. Friday lunch was crazy; people were there until five or six o'clock. And then they'd have dinner!"
Sydney was anxious to shake off any assumptions about its parochialism, and Australia's reputation as a place without a refined culinary identity. Restaurants boasted million-dollar fit-outs, competing for the grandest interiors, the most palatial views. Dining rooms were large, wine lists were encyclopaedic, and no expense was spared. On the plate, too, things erred on excess.
"We had filet of beef Rossini," says Tomlin. "We'd stuff the beef with fois gras, wrap it in prosciutto, with lovely little pommes galette and beautiful creamed spinach underneath, served with a very intense truffle sauce. And we'd top that with a seared piece of fois gras and more sliced truffle."
At Aria, Matt Moran remembers a similarly outsized approach to cooking. "A classic dish here was a seafood boudin blanc with fresh pasta underneath, and a beurre blanc sauce with roe in it," he says. "Back then, portions were much bigger and heavier than they are now."
While fine dining tended towards the classically French, the era also heralded the Mod Oz movement, largely fuelled by the work of Tetsuya at his eponymous restaurant, Neil Perry at Rockpool, Kylie Kwong at Billy Kwong and Janni Kyritsis at MG Garage, whose skilled use of Asian and Mediterranean techniques and produce expanded the horizons of what Australian cuisine could be.
While MG Garage might not have had the views of some other hotspots, it certainly kept pace in terms of luxury. Where else could you go to dine amongst a showroom of classic cars – and, if the urge took you, order one from the menu? Kyritsis recalls that his signature dish, a guinea fowl baked in clay and theatrically cracked open at the table, generated a huge amount of interest from US journalists. They'd never seen anything like it.
While the International Olympic Committee staff reserved Quay as their personal canteen for the duration of the Games, the Greek delegation, on reconnaissance ahead of the Athens Olympics, picked MG Garage as its unofficial headquarters.
"They must have seen my name and realised I was Greek," says Kyritsis. One evening, he realised he was hosting both Konstantinos Stephanopoulos, Greece's then-president, who was dining with the head of the Hellenic Olympic Committee, and Constantine II, the exiled former king of Greece, who had arrived with a retinue of tycoons. "I seated them at opposite ends of the restaurant," laughs Kyritsis. "I had to keep them separate."
For those 16 days, it was a whirlwind, a celebration — but like all good things, it soon came to an end. And when the circus left town, the industry felt it.
"I think we all expected it was going to be a party for quite a long time but the Olympics came and went," says Tomlin. "As soon as it was over, it was over. Finished. It was that brutal."
Many restaurants didn't survive. The industry took a further beating during the SARS epidemic of 2003, followed by the global financial crisis in 2008. Banc closed its doors in 2003, by which point the city had already lost Christine Manfield's Paramount, Tony Bilson's Ampersand and Peter Doyle's Cicada. MG Garage closed in 2004, two years after Kyritsis had left the business. Chefs pivoted from dégustation and white tablecloths to more casual, bistro-style eateries to keep up with Sydney's changing dining habits.
"Dining culture has changed a lot," says Tetsuya. "People go out to eat more often than before, but they eat casually – just one or two dishes, then they go home in the early evening."
Even at his own restaurant, one of the last bastions of dégustation, he's noticed the shift. "Nowadays, they don't stay long – two hours, an hour and a half. They eat, and go. Before, you'd have pre-dinner drinks, then drinks with dinner, and afterwards you'd have coffee, cognac, Armagnac, digestif, and you'd stay for a long time. But not today. They simply don't stay."
Looking back, Moran sees the era as critical in establishing Australia's culinary identity. "We really started to grow up into what we were doing," he says. It also set the scene for a new generation of chefs – those who trained in the kitchens of the greats, who then went on to establish their own names.
"Word got around that if you went to Sydney, you worked at Tetsuya's, you worked at Banc, Rockpool, MG Garage," says Tomlin. "There was some real talent that came through our kitchens. Justin North, Brett Graham – we had some superstars." It was an extraordinary era that produced extraordinary talent. "In those days, you could go to Sydney for a month, eat in a great restaurant every day for lunch and dinner, and experience something totally different. You could eat the best Japanese food outside of Japan, the best Italian food outside of Italy, the best Asian food outside of Vietnam or Thailand. It was a really exciting time to be in Sydney."