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Ladies lunch - cult Thai at Chin Chin

"By many measures, Thai eatery Chin Chin is the most successful restaurant Melbourne has ever seen. It opened in mid-2011, with queues from day one. But unlike most of its peers, that initial hype hasn’t faded. If anything, it’s intensified." Broadsheet

All that marmalade made me neglect this blog, and it also made me forget - how? - my trip into the city for lunch with the family ladies to belatedly celebrate the June birthdays of myself and my daughter-in-law. Apologies to them because it was such a fun day out even though the weather was miserable.

My daughter-in-law made the booking at Chin Chin which I had vaguely heard of and which I now discover is Melbourne's most popular Thai restaurant - well South-East Asian really as Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia also feature on the menu.

As you can see from the wall decoration shown here they have been going for ten years - well 11 now I think as it opened in 2011. It's owner Chris Lucas has a small empire of restaurants that include the Society in Melbourne, Kitsume, another Chin Chin in Sydney and several others. So I thought I would check him out and found a long but informative article about him written by Brook Taylor in the AFR. It was all quite interesting really so I shall digress from my day out a bit.

He is the son of Greek immigrants who ran a pub in Geelong. The family were not keen that he enter the hospitality trade, and so he studied Chemistry at Monash, but on the advice of his professor chose instead to pursue a career in sales at IBM. I can't remember much of that era, but eventually he opened One Fitzroy in St. Kilda and later took over the Botanic Hotel in South Yarra, transforming it from a pub to a top-end restaurant destination. However, I believe that Chin Chin was the game changer. Game changing seems to be his thing:

"Lucas’ special skill, by way of contrast, is sensing what the customer wants before they – and often he – know it." Brook Turner/AFR

I have been thinking on and off of late on why some businesses succeed and others don't. Obviously sometimes their product is just no good, or they are terrible managers, but I honestly think that in the end it comes down to publicity/marketing/advertising - call it what you will. Some people have this skill, some don't. In food in particular why do some businesses succeed and others fail - or at least just putter along. Why does Lune - that supposedly makes the best croissants you will find in Melbourne have long queues for its offerings as opposed to some other unnoticed establishment in some outer suburb? Are their croissants really that good? The hospitality writers rarely write about whatever might be going on in ordinary suburbs like Burwood, or Montrose or Seaford. They are completely focussed on the CBD and the hip inner suburbs. And yet there might be absolute gems elsewhere. Chris Lucas is obviously a very successful marketer. He explained that on the opening night of Chin Chin he got his staff to blitz Instagram with raves about the place, and somehow or other the word spread via social media I suppose.

The main thing he did with Chin Chin was to eliminate booking. You had to queue to get in and sometimes the wait was for two hours which had a number of results. It increased the business of his downstairs bar Go Go - because you could leave your name and they would text you when a table became available. And then a long queue and crowded venue of course attracts attention. There's a queue - it must be good. And so on. Nowadays because of COVID there is no queue and you have to book - which we 'oldies' - my daughters-in-law and niece now consider themselves 'oldies' I think - think is a very good thing. But I guess to the young it's all part of the experience. In fact this brought back a memory of queueing to get into the art-house cinemas in London in my youth. There were buskers and a sense of anticipation and excitement and we were often with friends and so it was a social experience as well. And if not, well we were young and in love and it was the 60s. What more did we need? We even did it in the cold and the rain. Youth is a foreign country to the old.

"A visit to Chin Chin feels less like a meal and more like a party. And even after all these years, we’re still willing to wait for that." Broadsheet

You may not have to queue any more but you certainly have to book. It was full on the day we went there. After its opening it was an amazing success - still is. Tourists make it a destination apparently:

"restaurants are brands. They’re a social meeting place. I thought ‘this is the future'. ... Chin Chin superseded, I think, the notion of what a restaurant is all about. It reflected Instagram and the Carrie Bradshaw moment [and] it became a cult" Chris Lucas

Buoyed by the success he opened three or four similar establishments, and then embarked on his biggest venture Society in the new development at 80 Collins Street. Then came COVID and almost disaster. There were claims of backpay - eventually smoothed away, with Lucas claiming that his turn to takeaway because of our lengthy lockdown had been mostly to keep his staff employed.

“We spent literally every hour of a 48-hour period creating new websites, stripping out kitchens and retraining an entire workforce into a takeaway model,” Chris Lucas

He was a vociferous opponent to Daniel Andrews and is credited with some of the reasons for why the state of emergency was not continued. Who knows. All I can say is that the man is a very canny businessman who seems to have created several game-changing venues in Melbourne. It was an interesting profile.

But back to Chin Chin.

Above are 'official' pictures of its food and the restaurant itself, and this is a screen shot of the Chin Chin website - which includes the Sydney venue as well. It labels itself as a Thai restaurant and several critics describe it as such as well. And yet the name implies Chinese - well to me anyway - and the food is not exclusively Thai. The executive chef was Ben Cooper - and indeed he still may be. I just don't know. The food is widely praised, and I certainly would not knock it, it was pretty good, but for some reason that I cannot quite put my finger on I think I preferred last year's excursion to Hochi Mama. The food was certainly spicy. David would have found it too much. Not me, although it was probably at the top end of spicy for me.

I actually forgot to take many pictures of food. This is really the only one that is any good, which probably means I was too involved with eating to think about it. One minor complaint - not even a complaint really. We decided not to go for the fixed menu option as we wouldn't have chosen the items on it, and so we chose three starters and three mains - which was ample. However, before we had finished the starters the mains appeared. It wasn't too much of a problem as the starters were almost done with but still it felt a little rushed. Super efficient would be a good way of describing it I guess.

The other thing I forgot to take a picture of- or rather - did not - was the waiter, who was very laid back, but very efficient. He was one of those young men with long hair tied back, with a few small tattoos - we noticed an upside down somewhat tiny horseshoe, and also some on the knuckles which my niece jokingly suggested was an indication of time in prison? She might know as she worked as a prison pharmacist for a while. He didn't look that way I hasten to add, and when complimented on his efficiency he said that he had been doing it a long time. I wonder how he fared in lockdown? Was he doing takeaway deliveries?

I did take a few more of the interior though:

Chin Chin sees itself as a complete experience - well according to their blurb on the website anyway:

"The dining, music and art scenes converge at Chin Chin and we’re an instigator in them, never a spectator." Chin Chin website

I'm not sure about that - yes the art on the walls was eye-catching and good photograph material, but actually somewhat subdued in colour. There may have been music but I honestly couldn't say. It was certainly noisy but then most restaurants are these days because of the hard surfaces that abound.

I also find it a little hard to go along with further hype inducing statements such as these:

"The renegade of the Australian dining scene, we do things our own way"

"Fuelled by chaotic, relentless energy that affects everyone who comes in, our antics defy the usual culinary pretensions. We believe in making dining truly democratic, it doesn’t matter who you are or who you know, you just need to be into it to be in at Chin Chin." Chin Chin Website

Yes indeed there was a very buzzy atmosphere, but then it was full and crowded and the staff were very busy. There were places where you had to almost breathe in to get past. If it had been half full or nearly empty would it have felt as buzzy and exciting? Democratic - yes. There was a very wide mix of people there, from really old people like me, through families to the young and hip. But I'm not sure whether I was "into it" enough to be "in". But then I guess this is all just marketing speak.

Did I have a good time? Yes indeed I did. Was the food delicious? Yes indeed it was. I couldn't fault it. I am conscious of having sounded a bit critical - seriously I'm not. I would recommend it. I just wonder whether it is so very much better than others - that I don't know - but which have not had such good marketing expertise behind it.

So - thank you Dionne for organising, and thank you Nic and Annabelle for being there too. I love these outings. Sorry it's not a great picture.

Chin chin - isn't that what you say when making a toast? A toast to you all.


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