Tucked away in a wondrous little vine-covered alleyway just off of Grenfell Street sits a hidden treasure, untouched since 2012. The historic space, formerly known as the iconic Chesser Cellar, is due to re-open in just five weeks time as ultramodern Yum Cha restaurant and bar, The Henry Austin.
Don’t let the adjective ‘ultramodern’ fool you, as although the concept is going to be incredibly contemporary in its own right, heritage listing of the building ensures the traditional setting remains as is, disallowing drastic changes to the fitout and ultimately preserving that old-time look and feel. Chesser Cellar is, to many of Adelaide’s older residents, a space filled with unforgettable memories and history, having run for 49 years strong . Those who remember the restaurant as it was before should certainly expect to experience a stabbing sense of familiarity when they step into the new and refurbished Henry Austin.
This week, we spoke with part-owner Max Mason to uncover his inspiration and vision for this exciting new project. Having previously run hugely successful gigs such as Adelaide Festival’s Lola’s Pergola and Fear and Delight at Adelaide Fringe, Max does not come into the hospitality scene inexperienced. Together with fellow co-owner and well-known maître d’ of Adelaide Tess Footner, Max seeks to transform this gloriously aged venue into one of Adelaide’s trendiest new destinations with a twist (or two…or five).
The Henry Austin is designed to be a place where the unexpected may happen.
Without giving too much away (and being especially cryptic in his attempts), Max broke down the envisioned concept quite simply as ‘modern Australian cuisine served in a Yum Cha format‘, highlighting the importance of giving customers the chance to actually see their dishes before buying. “I think it’s the logical next step for food,” Max explains, “You can read about a dish on a menu, sure, but you won’t know what it looks like or what you’re truly getting.”
“These days, the chefs are using so many interesting and diverse ingredients that, often, you’ll need a degree in food to actually understand what you are reading on a menu.”
As Max suggests, part of hospitality is to be – you guessed it – hospitable in service, so part of that is being transparent and approachable, letting customers know what they’re paying for. The Henry Austin will see waiters and waitresses roaming the restaurant, selling small plates in hand to dining customers, almost like a ‘visual menu’. With this in mind, Max has also interestingly chosen to put his front-of-house staff through acting courses: an considerably unique training method that proves the undeniable quality of service Henry Austin staff are set to offer.
“I have always talked about the theatre of hospitality and I think that my wait staff are the most important interface between the chef and the customer. I want them to be very good at that communication.”
Inspiration behind the genius stems from Modern American tapas joint, State Bird Provisions, located in San Francisco, USA. Having been blown away on his first visit to the dim-sum style venue, Max wanted to bring a little of that ingenuity back home. “I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere else,” he explains, “Obviously the Chinese Yum Cha thing is prevalent in South Australia, but I do believe it is such a good vehicle for selling food that it shouldn’t just be restricted to Chinese food, hence why we’re incorporating a Modern Australian cuisine instead.”
The Henry Austin space itself is just incredible, not to mention ridiculously large. It houses a number of different seating areas including a main, ground floor, a long table room, a basement room fitting 110 people, a smart, oak-panelled private dining room for 40 upstairs (with the utmost ‘ghastly fabulous’ old curtains according to Max) and an outdoor dining area underneath a stunning vine-covered sheltering.
As if the place wasn’t massive enough, an additional room downstairs in the quirky basement will be used to showcase and sell a number of independent South Australian wine labels, acting as an inner city bottleshop. This will provide the ultimate opportunity for small suppliers to get their stuff out there and accessible to the public at flexible hours of the day… neat, huh?
Takeaway will be yet another nifty service The Henry Austin will have to offer, sending out meals in rent-able, Indian-style tiffin tins that can be reused over and over.
You can still expect to see more exciting information pop up about this space shortly, because there are certainly a few more surprises in the works (ones we wish we could unveil, but sadly cannot). There is no doubt The Henry Austin concept is daring, but it is sure harness the perfect balance of tradition and modernism, delivering one of the most inherently unique experiences you might not find elsewhere. As Max ever so ambiguously suggests, “The Henry Austin is designed to be a place where the unexpected may happen.”
“People still, to this day, tell me stories about how amazing lunches were in this place. Having the honour of trying to resurrect that style will be really amazing.”
[As of July 2017, the Henry Austin will no longer be operating as a venue in Adelaide]