Restaurant News

Coming soon: Sydney’s Aria to open a relaxed wine bar

With some 1700 bottles on its wine list, the latest project is a natural evolution of the legacy restaurant in the current world order.

By Yvonne C Lam
How can a 20-year-old fine-dining restaurant stay true and relevant to the current COVID-19 dining world, without compromising its values and legacy? As borders close and wallets tighten, Aria, the crown jewel of the Solotel Group, is looking for ways to stay buoyant on that prized Sydney Harbour. And, reading the room, a relaxed wine bar to open in the Aria space might just be the "pivot" it needs.
Aria-proper isn't going anywhere (in fact, the restaurant is reopening tomorrow with a new tasting menu). But an Aria-adjacent wine bar has been the dream of head sommelier Alex Kirkwood for a long time. "Some of my favourite places are wine bars, so it was a natural thought to go down that route," he says.
Plans are in their very formative stages, but one of Aria's two private function spaces might be commandeered, and the wine list will take advantage of Aria's extensive cellar. Mandatory reservations are out, snacks by executive Joel Bickford are in. "I want it to be a completely different experience [to Aria], but still have that same genuine hospitality and warmth flowing through," says Kirkwood.
Aria head sommelier Alex Kirkwood. Photo: Supplied
Kirkwood's CV runs hot with fine-dining experience: the now-closed Aria Brisbane, Rockpool Bar & Grill, Quay. But since taking the Sydney Aria head somm position in 2016, his philosophy has been to run "a small wine bar in a big wine program". There are 1700 bottles on the wine list, yes, but the selection of 80 wines by the glass rotates weekly, and he regularly switches up the wine pairings that go with Aria's tasting menu. Running a small wine bar, in an actual wine bar, is the logical next step.
This is not Aria's first refresh rodeo; there was The Great Menu Re-do of 2014, and dining room renovations in 2016. Throughout it all the tablecloths have remained, the white draped linen a pronouncement that Aria's fine-dining credentials, established in 1999, are here to stay. But then there's the striking reality: thirty per cent of Aria's guests are – were – overseas visitors, and the current global pandemic has spurred co-owners Anna Solomon and Matt Moran to look to Aria's future.
Aria executive chef Joel Bickford, co-owners Matt Moran and Anna Solomon, and head sommelier Alex Kirkwood. Photo: Supplied
"To create a great dining experience means constantly reassessing every part of the restaurant, and to be honest the idea of a wine bar has been suggested at one point or another," says Moran. "The uncertain future of tourism here in Sydney meant we were encouraged to take the leap."
And if anything, Kirkwood says the new wine bar will bring some healthy competition between the kitchen and sommelier teams. Since Bickford was appointed executive chef in 2018, Kirkwood says Aria's food has been better than ever. But a restaurant's success is balanced by what's in the glass, as well as on the plate. "Now it's a chance for the wine team to sing our song a bit more. It's bragging rights as much as anything."
Aria reopens 14 July
1 Macquarie St, Sydney, NSW
(02) 9240 2255
ariasydney.com.au
The Aria wine bar is set to open in late 2020.