Defining a destination – Brisbane restaurateurs weigh in on James St’s culinary evolution
As the 2022 iteration of the James St Food + Wine Trail’s four-day fiesta kicks off today, Thursday July 28, we’re taking a look at the popular promenade’s evolution from forgotten Fortitude Valley strip to Brisbane’s preeminent hub for high-end dining. We reached out to some of the big movers and shakers of James St’s restaurant, cafe and bar scene to gather their thoughts on what what they think are the most magical elements of James St, and how it stacks up against other heralded food hubs across Australia and the globe. Here’s what they said …
What makes a destination? You know, the place that locals point to as that one must-visit spot for tourists looking to see a city at its finest. When it comes to Brisbane, there are some key criteria that need to be checked – a diverse selection of local boutique treasures, a desirable place to rest one’s head, an injection of fresh air and Queensland sunshine and, perhaps most importantly, an impressive array of places to eat, drink and create lifelong memories. It’s a place of curiosity, where you have the freedom to explore and discover unique experiences not found anywhere else.
James St is, by every definition, a destination – increasingly so when it comes to food. Though it’s easy to stray close to hyperbole when we heap praise atop our local wonders, it’s hard to see the exaggeration when we say that when it comes to James St, we’re truly, completely, and wonderfully spoiled. Nowhere else in Brisbane will you find a more concentrated cluster of epicurean excellence. From the gastronomic giants and chic cocktail joints to the cosy cafes and laid-back locales that give the street character, if variety is the spice of life, then consider James St perfectly seasoned. One could feasibly fill a day’s itinerary with three square meals and intermittent snack stops and still not have scratched the surface of what’s on offer.
The proof is in the pudding. Culinary king Simon Gloftis continues to turn heads with his four James St restaurants – The Calile-based Hellenika, SK Steak & Oyster and Sushi Room, as well as salubrious street-side nosh spot Sunshine. Nearby on Ada Lane, the hospitality hitmakers behind sAme sAme and Biànca (and Agnes Bakery around the corner) rack up accolades as quickly as they do dinner reservations. Long-running Middle Eastern restaurant Gerard’s Bistro remains a stalwart of the James St scene, while newcomer ESSA showcases the cutting-edge of contemporary cooking practices, while Mosconi, Gemelli Italian and Tinderbox continue Brisbane’s love affair with Italian cuisine.
The evolution of the James St dining precinct has been extraordinary to witness, with more promising developments in the pipeline for the future. It has become a force to be reckoned with in the Australian culinary scene – but what is it that draws some of Brisbane’s most revered chefs and restaurateurs to the destination?
Perhaps it’s best to start at the beginning, long before James St emerged as Brisbane’s go-to precinct for nosh. Jocelyn’s Provisions was one of the first purveyors to base itself on James St, originally operating at the Centro complex in 1998. The boutique bakery has been a mainstay for 24 years, a beloved fixture of the scene, even as it morphed and evolved.
“There has always been a well-considered master plan in play by the core landlords,” says Caitlin Gallagher, who has operated Jocelyn’s for more than a decade. “The vision, integrity and incredible business nous of the core landlords who have worked together to grow a unique development – back in the late 1990s – has helped establish it as arguably the premier retail precinct in the country.”
Similarly, PJ McMillan – chef and owner of James St stalwart and institutional meeting place Harvey’s Bar & Bistro and pizzeria sibling Tinderbox Kitchen – has seen the area thrive during his 15-year tenure.
“Back in 2007 it was a nice street with foot traffic,” PJ recalls. “But as I looked deeper at the delicatessen that was originally [at the Harvey’s site], I saw the potential in the area. I was excited as I thought it was the perfect location for a trusted bistro offering quality dining for breakfast, lunch and dinner for locals in the area.”
“Over the years, as fashion and design entered the street, the thoughtful design of the property allowed it to grow and turn it into what it is today. James St now acts as a trusted social hub that feels like a home away from home for many.”
Johnny Moubarak of Gerard’s Bistro, a restaurant that helped propel James St into the high-end echelon of dining precincts, saw potential in the area more than ten years ago – though even his sharpest prognostication couldn’t have predicted James St’s trajectory.
“When we first opened Gerard’s, I always knew back then that James St was something special and that it would evolve, but certainly not to what it has become today,” admits Johnny. “Looking at it now, I never expected it to be an international destination – a beautifully curated strip of businesses.”
Recent years have seen the proliferation (and diversification) of new dining offerings on James St accelerate, with highly regarded restaurateurs and esteemed hospitality groups carving out territory along the promenade. Simon Gloftis, for example, has claimed The Calile Hotel as the operations base for STK Group’s acclaimed venues. The arrival of the ultra-luxe accommodation (and the development of adjacent strip Ada Lane) helped spark the strip’s most recent boom, with Simon and his eateries playing a crucial part in establishing The Calile as the thumping heart of James St.
“I knew I wanted to open a restaurant in Brisbane and was looking for the right space for about five years – although, initially, I wasn’t planning on relocating Hellenika,” Simon recalls. “I looked at a lot of sites, but nothing felt quite right. Then a friend showed me the renders for The Calile Hotel and I felt an immediate attraction. Soon after that, I met with the Maloufs – the feeling was right and I knew Hellenika was meant to be there. It was a lightning-bolt moment.”
“It wasn’t just The Calile that attracted me, though,” he adds. “James St is without doubt the best precinct in Southeast Queensland to open a venue. Or possibly even Australia – when my southern friends come up to visit they are not coming for ‘Brisbane’, they are coming for ‘James St’.”
“The addition of The Calile Hotel set James St as a destination nationally,” says PJ. “Since its completion (in late 2018), the hotel opened up many new opportunities and attracted new talented people to the precinct.”
While some might think more players would lead to a cutthroat atmosphere of competition, what has evolved instead is a nurturing and supportive community – one that sees the successes of one as a celebration-worthy victory for all.
“It’s a community of like-minded business owners from various cultures and backgrounds who support each other,” says Angela Sclavos, owner of ESSA and The Green. “We all understand that each operator brings something unique to the street.”
Tyron Simon of Ada Lane establishments sAme sAme and Biànca , as well as Agnes Bakery further up the street, believes that James St’s current status couldn’t have been achieved without the solid foundation and example set by the early residents.
“There are so many great operators on James St,” Ty says, “however, it is fantastic to see so many of the key foundation tenants like Nicky Charman (Calexico), Dom Wing (Cru Bar), PJ McMillan (Harvey’s) and the Bickles (Camargue) still thriving after all of these years. They took a leap of faith and helped create what we know as James St today. The rest of us really benefited from their forward thinking.”
There’s a shared sentiment amongst James St’s operators that what they’ve built rivals Australia’s other noteworthy dining precincts in quality. As Brisbane narrows the gap between its interstate siblings, James St’s growth pattern speaks to an overarching desire for a cohesive connectedness. Tyron Simon believes that a shared vision of the street’s major stakeholders – the Maloufs, James’ and Georges – is the secret recipe to James St’s success.
“They have successfully and carefully shaped the street to ensure that the tenancy mix is complementary,” says Ty. “I believe that it is this singular fact that separates James St from the rest of the dining precincts. The teamwork displayed, despite their different financial interests, has ensured that the street has experienced carefully considered growth.”
“The concentration of amazing food and hospitality venues is unique to almost anywhere,” adds Caitlin. “The diversity of styles is also an advantage, making it more interesting and vibrant. Underpinning the whole precinct are the exceptional standards and quality by which all of the venues pride themselves on.”
“The secret is the cohesion and the complementary mix of retailers. It’s coordinated and well thought out,” says Johnny. “But, more importantly, the retailers are bespoke and refined. It’s like you’re walking into an open-air gallery – every footprint on the street is beautiful and every inch is aesthetically pleasing.”
While it’s hard to deny that James St firmly claims the designation of must-visit destination now, to maintain this accolade the restaurateurs believe it’s essential that James St continues to grow, though they stress that retaining the qualities that helped make it a destination in the first place is top priority.
“I think James St has hit a point where it has firmly established its identity – so now the future is just about cementing it as a quality destination,” says Simon. “Future tenants should consider the long term. We should all preserve and protect our piece of paradise. If we can all do this and continue to uphold the incredible James St standards, then it will continue to thrive as a world-class destination.”
As for how the street will evolve moving forward, the operators all have their own ideas. What they all agree on, however, is that James St is really only just hitting its stride. While the street itself fills in, it’s safe to expect other nearby nooks will eventually become part of a sprawling neighbourhood. Ten years from now, as folks from all over the world begin to descend on Brisbane ahead of the Olympic Games, expect James St to still be at the top of their list of must-visit destinations.
To discover more about this year’s James St Food + Wine Trail, head to the James St website.
Harveys and LOS image credit: Natalie Hoo
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