Hoteliers Nick Wills and Simon Tilley have launched a new pub group, Tilley and Wills, which opened the restaurant portion of Verandah in the heart of Sydney’s CBD last month.
The two publicans struck up a partnership after Wills’ Balmain Pub Group – which is no longer active – sold Tilley the Greenwood Hotel in North Sydney. Tilley had also recently purchased Verandah Bar in Martin Place from Dean Haritos, who decided to exit the pub industry to focus on other business pursuits.
Nine months on since the CBD pub was purchased, Tilley and Wills has re-opened the restaurant portion of the venue, now known as Social at Verandah. The duo and executive chef Brad Sloane have entirely rethought the concept of the restaurant, both in terms of design and menu.
Sloane has worked as Will’s executive chef for several years, heading up the menus for beloved Sydney suburban hotels such as The Riverview Hotel. Prior to that the chef worked in prestigious restaurants around the world, including the Belvedere Restaurant in London, and Balzac and Sugaroom in Sydney.
The chef says that, while always focused on excellent quality, having worked in both types of environments has helped him become very strategic in menu planning when it comes to a good pub menu – particularly when working on both a bar snack and restaurant menu.
“You have to get really good at making menus that work elements in there that work for both the bar and the restaurant. And also just your speed. You’ve got to be able to push it all out really quickly,” he explains.
These skills have come in handy for his latest project at Verandah, where he is in charge of two kitchens that need to produce different styles of food at a quick pace. Sloane explains that the way Verandah is set up it is almost two separate businesses in one venue. There is the main public bar area, which includes gaming and TAB areas; and the higher-end restaurant, Social at Verandah.
The venue has been reworked around these two areas, with greater emphasis placed on Social, as in the past the restaurant portion of the venue had struggled. Sloane suggests a lack of visibility from the street and a lack of internal signage had made patrons previously unaware of the restaurant offering. This has been rectified by the Tilley and Wills team, with a revamp of the space, and greater activation of balcony seating.
Situated in the heart of Sydney’s CBD, on the corner of Martin Place and Castlereagh Street, the move to Verandah also meant a change in demographic for Sloane. Rather than local residents, the main patrons of the venue are white-collar workers in the CBD, who frequent the venue on their lunch breaks and for afterwork drinks. This influenced how Sloane put his menu for Social together.
“I’ve worked a lot in suburbs where it’s a bit more financially orientated. They don’t want to spend too much. They are always wary of how much they spend, whereas I guess in the city they are a bit more frivolous. They just want high quality and they don’t mind paying for it. They don’t mind the price tag that comes with it. That’s part of the reason I was excited to come here, the ability to play with some higher quality ingredients.”
One such example is Sloane’s favourite dish on the menu – a pumpkin and yabby tortellini with a spicy yabby bisque and avruga caviar.
“You don’t usually get to play with yabbies anymore because they’re too expensive, so it’s a good change.”
The menu focuses on modern Australian fare, with a hint of Italian and British influences. Sloane says it was a collaborative effort between himself and owners Tilley and Wills, who had a good handle on the clientele.
“They’ve got a lot of friends that work in the city and have a good insight into what they’re looking for. And they don’t want it to be a one-faceted business, they want it to be open to a lot more women coming into the business. So they didn’t want to just project it towards steaks or anything like that. They wanted to have a good range of everything to really open the door to everybody.”
While steaks do not dominate the menu, they are indeed still present with a focus on high-quality cuts such as a 450g Cape Grim rib on the bone and a Little Joes MB 4-6 New York cut. There are plenty of lighter, more feminine dishes on the menu as well focused on fillets of fish and light pasta dishes. More substantial dishes include a nettle gnocchi with osso buco ragu, or a whole suckling pig with all the trimming for groups.
Having two separate kitchens to work with – one for Social and one for the main bar – is a luxury that Sloane hasn’t taken for granted. While it means he is less constrained in his menu choices, pace of service is still a factor when including dishes on the menu. “You’ve got that midday rush where everybody just comes out of the office and sits down and has 15-20 minutes to eat and get back to the office. It’s all a bit of a push so you have to revolve that menu around what you can do out of that kitchen in that time frame. And this new kitchen will allow us to do a lot more in terms of speeds and also in terms of what we’re actually offering.”
Only a few adjustments were made to the restaurant kitchen, which was in very good condition, but the public bar kitchen has been completely gutted and fit-out to Sloane’s specifications. A new stone pizza oven was installed, as well as a dough mixer. A char grill for steaks and burgers was essential, and anew combioven was also purchased to allow more options with steaming. The public bar venue, which will push out the more traditional pub food such as pizzas and burgers, will also include healthier fast-dining options such as salads and poke bowls.
In another departure from the norms of a suburban pub, lunch is the busiest time of the day for Verandah, as well as the five o’clock after-workdrinks crowd. Sloane and the Tilley and Wills team have thought long and hard about how to keep the business busy for dinner service – utilising a small lounge and bar area in the restaurant to keep patrons around until dinner. The restaurant offers a range of cocktails and lighter, tapas-style dishes so that the five o’clock crowd will linger.
“People can come across at five o’clock and just sit there and have a drink and some light nibbles at the bar, and then hopefully we can keep them around until dinner time as well and stretch it out a bit.” The other main difference for Sloane in working in the CBD? The hours. “It’s Monday to Friday for me, which is a bit of a unicorn of chef jobs.