"Of course, you’re paying for the view at Watson’s Bay. And if you’re in a retro frame of mind, it might be just what you’re looking for." Australian Food Timeline
In a slight mood of almost despair because I couldn't decide what to write about yesterday, I decided to dig out another book for the street library from my unused, unloved section at the very top of one shelf. I chose Doyles Seafood Cookbook, which is written by Alice Doyle who seems to have been the family matriarch mover and shaker. She is now dead - she died in 2004, two years after her husband Jack with whom she ran the famous Sydney restaurant - Doyles on the Beach for many years.
I started with the book, looked into the restaurant family's history and ended up with lots of questions. This always happens to me.
The book first. My copy is a revised and reprinted 2005 edition of the original Doyle's Fish Cookbook which was published in 1979. It has lots of family and historical photographs and a longish memoir written by Alice in a folksy kind of style. Plus recipes of course. There are glossy still life photographs at the beginning of each section but no photographs of the food. It's interesting the change of title isn't it? Back then I think the term 'fish - at least in the context of restaurants - referred to the whole gamut of fish, shellfish and other kinds of seafood. I suspect that by 2005 'seafood' had replaced 'fish' as the generic catchall phrase, and to a certain extent it still has, but it has also become a more specific term for all those other sea foods that aren't fish. But I ramble.
As I have previously said I have never really come to grips with Australian fish - seafood has been easier to understand. But fish - not so much. So when I saw this book somewhere I thought I would buy it because the name Doyle's was such an iconic Australian name, so I thought it would tell me everything I needed to know about Australian fish as well as providing me with a range of interesting recipes. But I was wrong, as I shall explain.
As far as I can work out - and I will come to the family saga - there are now three Doyle's restaurants in Watson's Bay at the ocean end of Sydney Harbour. A stunning spot, I think you will agree.
I have never dined there, although David thinks he may have done. I have dined at another Australian fish institution - Muir's in Hobart, and I will confirm that the food there is excellent, although I have no idea how much it cost because we were there on a business thing and the company was paying. Doyle's in Sydney, however, was listed in 2021 as one of Australia's 18 most expensive restaurants. Figures quoted then were from $47.60-$49.50 for fish and chips depending on what kind of fish and an eyewatering $160-$300 for grilled lobster, depending on the size!
So you have to ask is it worth it? I think this is a relatively recent photograph of their classic fish and chips. Obviously we can't taste it but I have to say it doesn't look that amazing. It doesn't look crisp. Maybe it comes from the Bar area though, which I suspect may be a bit cheaper.
I also found this quote from the Australian Food Timeline website:
"Their seafood paella serves the rice on the side. It must be the only place where you can eat this quintessentially Spanish rice dish without the rice." Australian Food Timeline
And here's the evidence - the seafood bit does seem a bit sumptuous but it's not paella is it? As you know I don't generally care whether something is 'authentic' or not, but this does seem to be a step too far. Truly a different dish - the whole concept of paella is a rice based dish. Which, of course, is not to say that this particular dish is not delicious. But it isn't paella. Maybe in ignorance it was first presented like this, people made a big fuss about it and now it has become a sort of icon dish. Australian irreverence personified.
I tried to find some sort of consensus on the place but was totally unsuccessful. If you trawl through Trip Advisor for example you will find everything from "the standards are below par on every level" to "Wow, was not expecting the excellent lunch we had". On the whole I think there might have been slightly more negative reviews, but then that's what happens isn't it? People are much more likely to criticise than praise. There also seemed to be a slight tendency to say that standards had slipped. Somebody said that Doyles didn't really need reviews. In the same way that Venice's Caffé Florian is an institution you go there because it's an icon. And so the owners, who have a guaranteed audience can charge whatever they like. You want to test it out. You want to be photographed there. And these places are usually in places of exceptional beauty - such as Watson's Bay which has stunning views of Sydney up the harbour to the city itself. As Jay Rayner of The Guardian recently said: "We very rarely go out to eat because we are hungry" and it seems to me that a visit to Doyle's completely fits into that - it's sort of a bucket list thing.
So how did it come to be such an icon? Well I think it's a mixture of location, location, location - well probably at least 80% location, location, location - and business acumen.
Way back in 1885 Alice Doyle's grandparents opened tea rooms in a tiny hut on Watson's Bay to provide refreshments - scones and fish and chips - to the day trippers who came for picnics on the beach. In 1907 this was pulled own and in 1908 their daughter opened the Ozone Refreshment Rooms on the same spot.
Aside from a period when the family leased the Ozone out and opened a different place in Signal Hill, the Ozone was successfully run until the Depression when it was forced to close.
In the meantime Alice had married Jack Doyle and whilst he was away during WW2 Alice dreamed of opening a new place in the same location. On his return after the war, Jshe persuaded him to open a place serving:
"perfect fresh fish. cooked and served simply but well - and plenty of it." Alice Doyle
"The Sydney Morning Herald quotes a family story explaining why the restaurant came to serve only fish. One of the Doyle grandsons, Peter, explained that Alice used to cook and Jack used to wait tables. But people used to complain that the steaks were tough. According to Peter “Grandfather said, ‘Right, from now on we’re only going to serve fish. No-one ever complains about the fish!’ And Grandmother said, ‘Well, if we’re only doing fish, you can do the cooking.’ And that’s how their roles were reversed.” Australian Food Timeline
And without finding a definitive statement, it does seem that Alice was the 'face' of Doyles, and made everyone feel satisfied and welcomed - the perfect maître d. The photograph at right was taken in the 50s apparently. It seems they sold the restaurant at some point to open another one in Rose Bay, but in 1967 they returned, and also bought the lease on the Watson's Bay Hotel which became Doyle's Palace Hotel, with the original Ozone restaurant becoming Doyle's on the Beach. Later they also opened Doyle's, Fisherman's Wharf, on the old wharf location. The empire was further expanded to include a place in the Sydney Fish Market - still sort of there but closed - due to COVID, and Doyle's on the Quay (peter Doyle @ Quay) which closed in 2014 due to the redevelopment of of the International Passenger Terminal of which it was a part.
Alice relinquished the reigns of the empire to her son Peter Doyle who, I think, was responsible for the expansion and I also think that it's must visit reputation was established under his leadership. At one point around 22 members of the clan were involved in the business - one big happy family according to Alice. This picture is in her book - and it's obviously not all there - there are several more people to the left of this group but my scanner is not big enough to include them all.
However, Peter died in 2004 and then everything went pear-shaped. Theoretically the empire was split between his son Peter - who got the Quay property and the hotel and his brother Michael who got the Doyle's on the Beach, Doyle's Fisherman's Wharf and the Fish Market place. However, it seems the deal was not made in writing and eventually one half of the family - Peter's side - took the other to court. And that's as much as I can find out. I do not know what was finally settled, or indeed if it was.
If you go to the Doyle's website you will find that only the Watson's Bay properties are listed. I think the hotel was sold some time ago. So what happened to Peter junior's prestigious Quay restaurant - well what happened to him? When the Peter Doyle @ Quay restaurant closed the closure notice was signed Gayle, Robyn and Sharon Doyle. Peter was not mentioned, and I can find no further reference to him at all - or his sisters. A mystery.
I have to say that on a quick flick through the book the recipes are not all that stimulating. I believe the current darling of the fish scene is Josh Niland who is famous for using the whole fish and who has written two books so far. Reading had the red one on a special around Christmas time, and I was tempted, but in the end I declined. Far too clever for me I think, so now I just look out for excellent recipes here and there.
The latest Coles magazine has a good looking one from Curtis Stone - Snapper with dilly potatoes and pickled peppers which might be worth a try - if it wasn't for the fact that peppers are still ridiculously expensive - and I have to say their Traditional fish and chips looks rather better than the Doyles version:
So tomorrow when I go for a walk I will leave Alice Doyle's story in the street library. I wonder if anyone will go for it. Tetsuya took a while to disappear but it did disappear in the end. I hope somebody is enjoying it.