When you talk to acclaimed chef Neil Perry about the restaurants he loves, you need to settle in and get comfortable. Whether he’s talking about his love of Sydney rock oysters (“the best in the world”) or his choice of wine (“I love classic Australian reds”), his passion for the culinary arts is obvious and he takes his time to really explain each locale. And when I dare to admit that I haven’t been to one of his favourite restaurants, he candidly (but pointedly) asks if I’ve been living under a rock. It’s less of an insult and more incredulity that I haven’t had the pleasure. “You need to go this weekend,” he commands.
And even though he has gained a substantial reputation in the restaurant industry after decades of success — or, as he humbly puts it, making “a living” from it — food is still everything to him. “Food is my entire life. I love eating it. It consumes every waking moment because I’m either reading about it, cooking it, travelling to experience it or I’m basically making my life, my craft out of it,” he says. “It’s a lifestyle for me. It’s not about how many hours a week I work, because I’m working every minute I’m awake.”
The Sydney-based chef spoke to T Australia’s Lucy E Cousins about where he recommends in his hometown for a Saturday night dinner.
Saturday night… dining along
“Poly has just really beautiful service. It’s owned by Matty Lindsay, who also has Ester. So the cooking is fantastic; really intuitive and inventive and, most importantly, delicious. There’s also a really big bar, so you can sit up at the bar solo, and I really like sitting at bars and eating. It’s also good because there’s quite a big snack section of the menu as well. I very rarely would eat a main there, actually. Instead, I’ll eat lots of little snacks and drink wine by the glass. I always think it’s just a nice thing to do when you’re by yourself to get a few different flavours. You don’t have to just eat one plate of food.” Poly 74–76 Commonwealth Street, Surry Hills
Saturday night… with a crowd
“Tets [chef Tetsuya Wakuda] and I used to go to Golden Century all the time in the ’90s when it first opened because it was open late and because of the quality of the live seafood. And like all Chinese restaurants, it’s not the place generally for two people to be dining unless it’s something like Flower Drum or Spice Temple. You really want six, eight, 10, 12 around a big table ordering lots of seafood, like beautiful steamed prawns and salt-and-pepper lobster and mud crab, and my favourite, steamboat abalone.” Golden Century 393–399 Sussex Street, CBD
Saturday night… for a casual dinner
“So, on Crown Street is Chaco Ramen and it used to be Chaco Bar; they used to do ramen at lunch and yakitori at night, and it’s the best yakitori in Sydney and it’s the best ramen. And so Keita [Abe, chef and owner] split the restaurant and he opened — which I’m going to tonight, actually — Chaco Bar on Victoria Street [Potts Point]. He’s done it beautifully and I love sitting at the bar. It’s the best yakitori. But the ramen is just a killer and my favourite is the chicken coriander, which is really spicy.” Chaco Ramen 238 Crown Street, Darlinghurst.
Saturday night… on a date
“Well, Sydney rock oysters are the best oysters in the world. There’s no doubt about that. Our first Australians have been eating them for about 60,000 years; they’re the original native ingredient. Between the border of Victoria and the border of Queensland on the east coast of New South Wales is the only place you can get Sydney rocks. And it’s like owning Champagne. Sure, there’s lots of sparkling wine out there, but there’s only Champagne in France that produces champagne. It’s the same for me with Sydney rocks. I’ve tasted oysters all around the world and nothing has tasted as amazing as those incredible iodine explosions of flavour, the minerality and the saltiness and the brininess that Sydney rocks bring. The vast majority of oysters in the world are Pacifics [Magallana gigas] and I don’t really rate them massively. There’s nothing nicer than being at home and knocking the lid off some oysters you’ve had delivered and having a beautiful glass of wine with my wife.” East 33
Saturday night… celebrations
“Rockpool, it’s the best. It’s my daughter’s 27th birthday on Saturday and I’m taking her to Rockpool. I just love eating the greatest ingredients in the world cooked with wonderful craft and there’s no better place in Australia to do that. I mean, the produce that goes into that restaurant from all our amazing fishermen around the country and all our amazing beef producers and then the dry-ageing in-house process and in-house butcher and in-house fishmonger… you just can’t get better quality product on a plate. And there’s no better room in the world to drink beautiful wine in as well. It’s the full package, for me.
Rockpool is the place I always go to celebrate anything that’s special. My daughter got married there in January, which was just phenomenal. I always order a steak and pair it with a bottle of wine. I love some of the really classic Australian reds; they’re not outrageously expensive, wines from Windowrie, Rockford is best for shiraz, Mount Mary, some of those really old classics. Yarra Yering Dry Red No. 2, they’re as good as wine gets, really.” Rockpool Bar & Grill 66 Hunter Street, CBD
Neil Perry retired from his role as culinary director at Rockpool Dining Group, which owns Rockpool Bar & Grill and Spice Temple among other restaurants, in July 2020. He remains a consultant and he has recently worked with East 33 on its Chef Series.