FUCK is a word you hear a lot at eightysix – one of Canberra’s most acclaimed and controversial eating spots where they frequently eighty-six (strike off), items from the menu. This article is not a food review. It’s about eighty sixing one of the owners – Sean Royle.
Eightysix opened in April 2013 with Sean Royle and Gus Armstrong deciding “Fuck it, let’s just do the food we love, the way we want to do it.”
Although not yet a year old, eightysix has smashed it with a string of accolades that has made the hospitality industry stand up and take notice. It’s the only Canberra restaurant to be featured on the front of Gourmet Traveller, with their now famous Caramel Popcorn Sundae.
‘In hospitality, this level of recognition is a life goal,’ says Sean. ‘Even we never dreamt it would all happen so fucking fast.’
So why would anyone want to eighty-six Sean?
It’s not exactly common to pay for the privilege of dining in an establishment and have the owner swear at you, even if it’s meant in a friendly way – Sean uses the word fuck unconsciously and sometimes at least once a minute. And it’s not just the bad language that makes some uneasy; it’s the overall attitude. But, as Sean says, ‘We don’t give a shit if we lose customers who don’t like it here. We want customers who want to be here.’
The package that is eightysix is full of swearing and swag and it can catch you off guard; like the customer who was told on arrival that she and her mother could sit wherever they fucking well wanted. Or the customer taking a VIP client to dinner who was told in no uncertain terms they would be fucking sharing dishes or not eating at eightysix – the menu is designed solely around sharing.
With such in-your-face attitude, it’s confusing when you hear Sean say, ‘we don’t want to offend people. We don’t ever aim to do that.’
What the fuck?
‘We’re just pumped,’ expresses Sean. ‘It’s an adrenalin rush when you open your doors for business, after so many months pulling it together and—BANG—you’re packed and you stay packed for days. It’s intense when you have a full house and there are dozens of people lining up to get in. It winds you up and we get uncontrollably excited at times.’
If this all sounds like a spoilt Gen-Y brat trying to gloss over their behaviour with a convenient, after-the-fact explanation, think again. There is an earnestness here that is endearing, and sincere. Those who have managed to get Sean to sit for more than a nanosecond to talk get him straight up, uncensored, and they believe him.
‘We want people to come here and dine like they’re dining at home with us, so there’s no smears, no foams and no deconstructed food,’ says Sean. ‘We want people to have fun, to enjoy amazing food, prepared simply, with amazing produce.’
‘We also want eightysix to be a unique, casual experience, so we don’t have the predictable set formula that many hospitality places do. Who says their formula is the right one anyway? Who made that fucking rule?”
By formula, Sean is talking about stuff we all expect when dining out, like printed menus – eightysix don’t do printed menus. Their ever-changing selection of delicious dishes are scribbled on a blackboard stretching the length of the restaurant, making it easy for staff to eightysix a dish off the menu when it’s no longer available.
‘We don’t do chips, and we only sell craft beers,’ says Sean.
Staff are not expected to display the usual formalities, such as holding one arm behind their back as they pour wine. ‘Our staff are here to have fun,’ says Sean. ‘A lot of fun.’
And what about the customer always being right? ‘That’s bullshit,’ says Sean. ‘Like with music. How many more hours of Café del Mar can we listen to? We play the music that gets us fired up. Music we want to hear. And if a customer doesn’t like that … well, that’s too bad because it’s the music we’re going to fucking play. Look at the person who attacked us on Twitter because we were playing hip hop … how can a certain genre of music make you so angry that you feel the need to attack on social media?’
Sean openly admits that some social media rants can be hurtful and unnecessary. ‘In many ways this is our life’s work,’ says Sean. ‘It’s frustrating because half the time these aren’t professional, serious writers passing comment and they don’t know what they’re talking about. They don’t know our product like we do. So they publish stuff like “the food is shit”. What does that mean? Our food isn’t shit. These guys can get fucked.’ Right on Sean.
Gourmet Traveller ranked eightysix fifth best new restaurant in the country for 2013. Although a newbie, the restaurant was just half a point off of earning a hat in the Sydney Morning Herald’s prestigious Good Food Guide. It promptly earned a spot in The Australian’s ‘hot 50’ restaurants and ACT’s ‘hottest restaurant’ for 2013. Here at home, The Canberra Times ranked eightysix the third best restaurant in the ACT. CityNews raved about the place creating a huge buzz and was among the paper’s top hits and clicks for last year. Not exactly consistent with ‘shit food’.
But has eightysix gone too far on some counts? Sean is adamant that it hasn’t. Although some winding back has taken place, eightysix won’t ever do what every other restaurant in town does just because it’s expected.
‘What’s the point of opening a restaurant to do what you love and then not doing what you love because of a small number of unhappy customers? Isn’t there enough mediocrity around? If we can’t love what we do then we won’t do it.’
Despite having the courage of his conviction, Sean admits the team at eightysix has learned some valuable lessons. ‘The place just exploded when we opened and we’re still insanely busy but the restaurant is more settled now. It’s easier to handle the pressure.’
Whether your love Sean or not is irrelevant to eightysix. What is relevant is serving up outstanding fine food and wine while showing Canberra there is another way. And, when all is said and done, Sean is right – If you don’t like what’s on offer, you can book somewhere else.
eightysix, corner Elouera and Lonsdale Streets, Braddon. 6161 8686. Book way in advance to avoid disappointment.
Photographer Leighton Hutchinson//Sean’s Hair Adam Ciaccia, Axis Hair//Make-up David Reid