It’s not just alcohol operators encouraging us to imbibe. Newly opened Craft & Co in Melbourne’s Collingwood is a restaurant and bar in a warehouse with microbrewery, distillery and coffee micro-roastery on site.
In Sydney, all-day café/bistro The Grounds of the City has a cocktail bar – where you can get an espresso martini at 10am - and barista bar among other zones designed to encourage the maximum flow of customers for the maximum return.
So with all this promiscuous drinking going on, are Aussies really turning into a nation of dipsos?
Paradoxically, no. In fact, quite the opposite: IBISWorld reports national alcohol consumption is at its lowest in 55 years and we’re also drinking more booze at home than when we go out.
That’s good for liquor retailers, not so good for restaurateurs. And therein lies the rub: it’s one thing to have a wine list full of big mark-ups, quite another to have a customer base happy to pay them.
As Eldred points out, diners today are savvy, educated and increasingly focused on value. So you want to calculate the mark-up on a bottle of Yabby Lake chardonnay? You look it up on your smartphone, don’t you?
Indeed, some more cynical types have suggested the main reason for the proliferation of obscure foreign wines in some very on-trend establishments is less to do with the sommelier’s current passion project than the need for a certain level of obfuscation on the mark-ups: it’s much harder to do your sums on a bottle of Long Island chardonnay, for example.
There are other options for restaurateurs.
“An increasing number of operators are importing wines directly, thus cutting out the distributor (and associated costs),” says Eldred. “They’re going overseas and picking up really good wines for under $10. Or they’re avoiding branded wines altogether, buying cleanskins and house-branding the bottles themselves.”
Anecdotal evidence supports the facts on the increase in home drinking. Our frequent diner cited above? He’s not alone in choosing to have pre-dinner drinks at home before going out – “pre-loading”, as he calls it - thus avoiding a hefty bill on aperitifs.
With the arrival of home-delivery booze from the likes of Uber Eats and Deliveroo, it’s easier than ever to save money by eating at home and avoiding licensed restaurants altogether.
This trend is even more evident in New Zealand, where a combination of stricter licensing and drink-driving laws have led to a surge in home drinking at the expense of licensed establishments.
Wellington-based restaurant consultant Martin Bosley says one consequence of the laws has been a rise in backyard bars.
“Going to a bar or restaurant for after-work drinks has become a thing of the past,” he says.
Back in Australia, there’s always the BYO option, even if – for obvious reasons – BYO restaurants are increasingly hard to find.
At Recreation, Mark Protheroe goes against the trend by allowing customers to BYO to his fully licensed establishment.
“It’s brought in a lot of influencers that would likely not have come in otherwise,” he says. “It’s (still) all about revenue creation.”
Interestingly, his model has a parallel in Hong Kong and mainland China. Melbourne restaurateur and frequent HK visitor Gilbert Lau of Flower Drum fame says it’s common for mid- to upper-level restaurants in the city to permit customers to BYO – for a price (usually around $HK500 a bottle).
Lau says rising rents in Hong Kong are forcing restaurant prices up across the board and there are “no bargains” on wine lists, where mark-ups of 250 to 300 per cent “and more” are standard.
“If you ask a restaurant – even in a big hotel – whether you can bring in a bottle, I’d say 90 per cent of them will say yes,” he says.
Jeffrey Van Vorsselen, general manager at The Langham Shenzhen, says the practice is common in mainland China as well, and advises Australian and NZ restaurateurs to follow suit.
“I’d say to restaurateurs here, if you’re serious about enticing affluent Chinese to your establishment and make it clear they are welcome to bring their own wine.
“In China, BYO is an important way for restaurateurs to build relationships with their guests.”
At Recreation, Protheroe has been observing a new pattern of behaviour from commitment-shy modern diners.
“A lot of our customers are coming in and having a drink and a couple of plates and then moving to the next bar and doing the same,” he says. “It’s the modern version of the progressive dinner.”
Just a little more liquid.
Necia Wilden is a career writer and editor