“Our job at Margaret, quite simply, is to take the best produce in Australia and try not stuff it up,” says chef Neil Perry. “If you can’t make a perfect piece of fish any better, then we’re not going to put five or six extra things on the plate just for the sake of it.

Perry’s Double Bay finer-diner is a finalist for The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide 2023 Vittoria Coffee Restaurant of Year. Dining trends threaded throughout the new Guide (published on Tuesday) include anchovies on everything, new-wave Korean, old-school French, and more Japanese influence than ever before.

Joel Bickford plates up at Shell House Dining Room & Terrace.
Joel Bickford plates up at Shell House Dining Room & Terrace. Photo: Parker Blain

However, the biggest trend influencing how Sydneysiders eat at the top end of dining, is a focus on plating high quality produce without all the bells and whistles and gimmicks of modern haute cuisine.

It’s by no means a new style of cooking – Perry was doing the same thing at Barrenjoey House in 1983 – but more two and three-hatted restaurants have less edible flowers and foams than featured in the Guide five years ago, and far more coal-roasted simplicity.

In 2022, less is more at venues also including Shell House Dining Room & Terrace, Surry Hills’ Firedoor, Mimi’s in Coogee, Bert’s Newport, a’Mare at Crown, Chippendale’s Ester and Fred’s, Paddington. Post-COVID lockdowns, Sydneysiders seem more interested in long, boozy lunches than meditative dinners.

Magra lamb cuttlets with braised winter greens and potato aioli at Mimi's.
Magra lamb cuttlets with braised winter greens and potato aioli at Mimi’s.  Photo: Edwina Pickles

Shell House culinary director Joel Bickford hesitates to label his style of elevated dining as “Mediterranean” (“that suggests plastic lobsters and fishing nets”) but concedes there is a lot of coastal European influence to his menu in the CBD.

“‘Laid back luxury’ is a term we use a lot,” he says. “It’s reminiscent of the Mediterranean way of eating, which is just very simple and relaxed. The food there is amazing, but it’s not always the focus. You want people to enjoy each other’s company and the surroundings rather than stare at a plate and dissect every ingredient.”

Acknowledging farmers and fishers (the real “rockstars”, says Perry) is also increasingly common, rather than just the general area the produce was sourced from.

Firedoor’s Lennox Hastie lights up when he tells guests how Victorian wagyu farmer David Blackmore has spent the past decade breeding Australia’s only herd of Rubia Gallega, a Spanish cattle breed renowned for its buttercup-yellow fat. Staff at Oncore by Clare Smyth explain the provenance of every feature ingredient to diners paying $340 for seven courses.

Meanwhile at Margaret, Perry’s menu lists “Elena’s buffalo mozzarella” and “Bruce’s King George Whiting”. (That’s Elena Swegen of Burraduc Buffalo farm near Foster, and fisherman Bruce Collis who supplies catch from the pristine microclimate of Victoria’s Corner Inlet.)

“Bruce’s whiting has almost become our signature dish,” says Perry.

Chef Lennox Hastie wood-fires rare-breed steaks at Firedoor, Surry Hills.
Chef Lennox Hastie wood-fires rare-breed steaks at Firedoor, Surry Hills.  Photo: Edwina Pickles

“The key is really just paying reverence to the fish … making sure it’s handled well and properly dry-filleted before kissing the grill. Then it’s straight on the plate with lemon, salt and Cobram Estate’s hojiblanca olive oil. It’s so simple, but people lose their minds.”

The Good Food Guide 2023 Vittoria Coffee Restaurant of the Year Finalists

Firedoor, Surry Hills firedoor.com.au

Chef Lennox Hastie and a great kitchen team focus on cooking with fire, smoke and ash. Score a booking at the counter for a five-course menu that might start with seared coral trout and finish on caramelised, crystallised kouign-amann pastry.

Pav and Heidi's bigeye tuna with grilled salsa at Margaret, Double Bay.
Pav and Heidi’s bigeye tuna with grilled salsa at Margaret, Double Bay. Photo: Edwina Pickles

Margaret, Double Bay margaretdoublebay.com

Neil Perry is still in the kitchen most nights at his latest (and allegedly last) restaurant overseeing a mighty roster of the country’s best produce, wood-fired, roasted and dressed to become the most delicious version of itself.

Oncore by Clare Smyth, Barangaroo crownsydney.com.au

Nostalgic, surprising and often playful luxury dining, high in the sky at Crown in a deeply cushioned room. If the harbour view isn’t commanding your attention, it’s a rose of kingfish curled with radish and boosted by sea vegetable nage broth.

Pipit, Pottsville pipitrestaurant.com

Chef Ben Devlin manipulates hyperlocal ingredients into bubbling ferments and ageing concoctions that take up every available space in the open kitchen of this soothing restaurant. Regional dining, in a quiet Tweed Shire town, at its very best.

Shell House Dining Room & Terrace, Sydney shellhouse.com.au

Lemon trees heavy with ripe fruit is only one of the ways Shell House recreates the vibe of Lake Como on a CBD rooftop. There’s dazzling marble, glazed terracotta – and then there’s excellent food, taking cues from Italy and the Mediterranean.

The Restaurant of the Year winner will be announced at The Good Food Guide 2023 Awards on Monday night. The Good Food Guide 2023 magazine is on sale from Tuesday November 22 for $9.95 at newsagents and supermarkets or pre-order from thestore.com.au