Dainty Sichuan has come a long way since it first opened in 2003 as a tiny eight-table affair on then-unfashionable Smith Street in Collingwood. Back then, chef Tina Li would lug her trolley to and from the Queen Victoria Markets on the tram; she and husband, Ye Shao, had no cash reserves and an uphill battle converting the palates of Melbourne to the challenging fire and gutsy flavours of real Sichuan food.
Fast-forward 12 years and not only is the pair about to open their latest Dainty Sichuan restaurant - on Lonsdale Street in the CBD - they're also planning a Chadstone version of their Dainty Sichuan Noodle Express, which débuted to accolades at the launch of the upmarket Emporium food court. And then there's Tina's Noodle Kitchen, the student-friendly shops focusing on the rice-noodle soups so popular in China's south-west. Currently in the city and Box Hill, another two are being fitted out at Highpoint Shopping Centre and High Street, Preston.
"Yes, it's very busy for us," says Shao, a former Chinese traditional medical practitioner turned full-time restaurateur.
Set to open at the end of July, the new Dainty Sichuan is a 250-seat affair in the former home of Dragon Boat Palace. Shao says it will take the format of their popular Box Hill restaurant, with individual hot pots instead of the central cauldron, which is now seen as old-fashioned by China's young urban élite.
The rags-to-riches Dainty story hasn't been without its bumps in the road. Li and Shao closed their smartly fitted-out city Dainty Sichuan at the revamped 206 Bourke Street centre last year due to "high rent and other difficulties on the site". Initially a joint venture with the group behind the HuTong restaurants, it has now been reinvented as Lost Heaven, also a Sichuanese restaurant.
Dainty Sichuan opens at 149 Lonsdale Street, Melbourne, at the end of July.