If there is one spot in Sydney that every local, interstate and international visitor should go – where the food is as good as the views (and the drinks) – it's the Sydney Opera House.
In its early days, Bennelong, the Opera House's flagship restaurant, built its reputation on international chefs who were said to "establish a new standard for Sydney" with menus that were French and British.
In 1973, Oliver Shaul, who had won the tender to establish and run the catering in the Sydney Opera House, was the licensee of what was then called The Bennelong restaurant. It opened in August 1973 and was losing about $800 a day (a huge sum back then) due to many issues, including parking and transport problems, that were still to be resolved before the official opening of the Opera House in October of that year.
A $1 park-and-ride system from the Domain carpark was introduced to appease the public and performers. Despite the isues, Shaul's entrepreneurial instincts were on the mark. In 1968, he had opened the world's tallest and largest revolving dining room, The Summit restaurant on top of the Harry Seidler-designed Australia Square Tower.
In the late 1970s, Bennelong was very much a set-course menu restaurant offering diners "buffet" options, including dishes served in chafing dishes (similar to a bain-marie), cold meats, a choice of five salads, bread roll, coffee and mints. Alternatively, a "luncheon and dinner menu" offered set courses starting from three courses, for $14, up to five courses, for $31.50.
There was also a long list of additional suggestions, including rockmelon with double smoked ham, brochette of pineapple with double smoked ham, and beef wellington. Indonesian chicken wings, "oriental bitoks" (a type of Russian meat patty) and vegetable tempura were the only Asian dishes on the menu, but the highlight would have been the $1 glasses of sherry and wines by the bottle for $5.50.
By 1984, Bennelong was offering $6 business lunches on a "superb" menu that included grilled pork chops Normandie, roast chicken forestiere and rump steak marchand de vin, served with vegetables or salad and freshly baked "plain or fancy" bread. From the a la carte menu, you could order half a dozen oysters for $6.46, and appetisers, such as oyster souffle, prawn and oyster bisque or avocado pear and smoked eel for about $7.
Mains, if you chose from the higher end – a whole snapper, oven baked and coated with dry vermouth sauce would cost $13.50 and the fillet of beef Au Poivre, which came with a choice of cuts, and served with green Madagascan peppercorns, brandy and cream, cost a steep $15.75.
In the mid 1980s, Bennelong had introduced its famous roast trolley and parking was free-of-charge for diners.The long-standing issue of parking at the Opera House wouldn't be resolved until the 1990s when two engineers, over a couple of drinks, came up with the idea of a multi-storey, doughnut-shaped car park under the Opera House, writes Sydney Morning Herald journalist Helen Pitt in her Walkley award-winning book,The House.
The Bennelong menu of 1984 is a far cry from Peter Gilmore's Bennelong menu of today. Gilmore creates modern Australian cuisine with Asian influences that costs a fair bit more than $14 for three courses. The flavours are subtle and the produce, sourced from Australian farmers, fishermen and growers, is among the best you will find on a plate. Dishes such as Moreton Bay bug dumpling, blue-eye trevalla, spiced lentils with miso, and roasted Arkady lamb loin; and ingredients such as smoked harissa, green olives, barletta onion and shaved macadamias grace the menu. No roast trolley or $1 glasses of sherry insight.
Forty-five years after Bennelong opened, in a wholly different Sydney and Australia, I join a group of seven under the stairs of the Opera House for an interactive small-group dining tour, Taste of the Opera House. "I hope you've come hungry," says Steve Nomchong, our guide for the day.
Our first experience is a cocktail-making class with Opera Bar's bar manager. We're learning to make a Sydney Sling, an interpretation of the famous Singapore Sling created by Ngiam Tong Boon, a bartender at Raffles Singapore.
Often overshadowed by its big and more illustrious brother, Bennelong, Opera Bar is nonetheless the Opera House's busiest dining venue. It opened in 1988, in time for the Bicentennial, as the Forecourt Restaurant on the lower concourse, with its panoramic views of the Harbour Bridge. In 2001, Opera Bar came under the management of MorSul group, headed up by celebrity chef Matt Moran, who introduced a new food and bar menu concept.
We take a seat and enjoy our self-made Sydney Slings with some fresh oysters and prawns from Raw Bar and charcuterie of salami, prosciutto and devon from the Meat + Cheese Room, the most recent addition to Opera Bar's specialty dining precinct.
As we linger over our first course, our conversation drifts from food to history. Steve tells us the traditional custodians of Bennelong Point, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, called the land on which the Opera House stands, Tubowgule, meaning "where the knowledge waters meet".
The original terrain was a rocky island that could only be reached at high tide by walking along middens of shells, collected and piled together. "This area served as an important place for food, celebration and ceremony for thousands of years. Something which is still being celebrated today," says Steve.
We move along to Opera Kitchen where we make our own Hawaiian poke bowl. The ingredients have been pre-chopped for us, laid out perfectly in Japanese style boxes, and the sauces divided into three pouring jars. We're pacing our appetites well when we make our way to the upmarket Portside Sydney on the western boardwalk, which opened in 2006 as The Colonnade restaurant. Our leisurely lunch is a Rangers Valley beef brisket with spiced malt jus, kale, horseradish and white onion puree; tender, juicy and full of flavour.
We conclude our degustation tour at the illustrious Bennelong restaurant, which turned 45 this year.
The theatre begins with a butterscotch and spiced apple old fashioned served with a rising cloud of sweet spice smoke. Next, executive chef Peter Gilmore's sinful signature dessert, the eight-texture "chocolate cake from across water", a nod to its origins at Gilmore's other restaurant, Quay, located across the harbour. Good Food restaurant critic Terry Durack has described the dessert as one of the "dishes that changed Sydney".
We each get one to ourselves. One by one, we watch as hot chocolate sauce is poured on top, the surface slowly melting, till the whole thing gives way. It's a perfect end to an intimate Sunday afternoon degustation.
AROUND THE COUNTRY IN ...
• Queen Elizabeth II officially opens the Sydney Opera House. Bennelong restaurant opens, sitting within the walls of the sails and offering a fine-dining experience with unrivalled views
• Australia's first casino, the Wrest Point Hotel Casino, opens in Hobart.
• The $100 note and the $1 coin are introduced.
• Bob Hawke is re-elected as prime minister.
• Australia celebrates its bicentennial with a tall ships parade in Sydney Harbour.
• The Seven Network launches Home and Away.
• South Australia's Olympic Dam mine opens; it's the world's largest uranium deposit and the largest underground mine in Australia.
• Australia's populations exceeds 22 million, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
• Julia Gillard replaces Kevin Rudd as the 27th prime minister after a leadership spill becoming the first woman appointed to the role.
The writer dined as a guest of the Sydney Opera House.
Taste of the Opera House runs once a month on a Sunday (dates vary) from 10.45am to 2.30pm for a maximum of 10 people. Tickets are $295 per person. See sydneyoperahouse.com/tasteoftheoperahouse or call 02 9250 7250.