Coogee Pavilion is a one-size-fits-all eatery – and what a blockbuster size it is. This new venue not only shelters a pizzeria, oyster counter, grill section, juice stand, cafe, cocktail area and raw bar, but it also (somehow!) has room for a giant Scrabble board, 1950s ping pong tables, a theatrette, flower market, sea-themed library and a play zone for pétanque and other old-school and slow-paced games. There’s even a dog-parking area outside.
Everything about this Merivale project comes with scaled-up ambitions – even the interior details are epic, like the 45-kilogram lightshade that Jacqui Fink (Little Dandelion) hand-knitted from 500 metres of rope or the 2.5-metre-long whale-shaped light that evokes Coogee’s history for sightings of these sea creatures (this lamp is original and specially made, the cheesy “whale of a time” pun nearby not so much).
And all this colossal work is only for the ground floor of the establishment. Merivale, understandably, will unveil the building’s other levels at later stages – like a too-big-to-handle movie adaptation that needs to be split into multiple instalments and release dates. Expect a rooftop bar and upmarket restaurant after a sizeable break (you can imagine the kind of recuperation period needed after finalising Coogee Pavilion, part one, let alone tackling parts two and three).
The venue’s floor plan may be grand, but so is its menu, which is headlined by heavyweights. Credit for what appears on your plate goes to Jordan Toft (Eveleigh), executive chef of Coogee Pavilion; Zac Sykes (The Fish Shop), head chef of Coogee Pavilion’s ground floor operation; Danielle Alvarez (Chez Panisse), who is behind the breakfast menu and Vincenzo Biondini (Merivale’s ‘pizza maestro’), caretaker of the wood-fired crusts, slices and toppings.
With such big hitters and grand-scale attractions on offer, it’s not surprising that the response has already been immense, with 700+ covers on opening night last Thursday.
Coogee Pavilion definitely works hard to captivate your appetite, thirst and attention – and the way that it multitasks furiously will undoubtedly spark comparisons to another multi-purpose Sydney eatery with supersized ambition. Namely The Grounds of Alexandria (except instead of Kevin Bacon the pig, Coogee Pavilion has Rudy’s the barber shop – which is unlikely to ever be victim to a kidnapping plot). Both eateries manage to be ingeniously kid-friendly, while being “cool” enough to attract queues of all ages. Your view at each place is also full of frame-filling marvels, too; The Grounds is magnificently overrun with well-styled blooms and greenery, while the striking coastal interiors and designer vignettes seem to have drifted in with the tide at Coogee Pavilion.
These are, of course, superficial comparisons; each establishment is shot with originality and the locations could not be more different. The Grounds feels like a stunning, hard-to-believe relief in ultra-industrial Alexandria, whereas Merivale’s operation already has the in-built attraction of its sun-struck, beachside surrounds. The interiors strategically riff on the nearby tidemarks and sand.
Of course, the sea is not just a faddish prop at this Merivale establishment – its waves crash over the menu, too. Above the open kitchen, you’ll see blackboards chalked with Today’s Oysters (Merimbula, Pambula, Smoky Bay, $3.50 each), Today’s Catch (Pan Roasted Silver Dory $36; Pan Roasted Hapuka, $36), and Today’s Sashimi Platter (Bluefin Tuna, $32-$51). Tour the room and you’ll get an upclose view of the oyster counter and raw bar, too.
In line with Coogee Pavilion’s all-things-to-all-people approach, the offerings go beyond coastal limits. In fact, nothing sums up this eatery’s knack for nailing approval ratings better than its drinks list. You can kickstart your visit with a slick and silky coffee from Will & Co, gearshift past pleasantries and get straight into a Pinot Smash ($18, a summery vodka-charged number from the cocktail list) or give in to good intentions and order a virtuous concoction from the Love Juice stand. I’m no holier-than-thou health freak, but I do have a weak spot for a fruit-flushed, bracing beverage, pumped full of righteous, fast-acting ingredients that surely counter all the hot chips I can’t refuse. While I dig the Harajuku smoothie ($10), with its clean-sweeping matcha, banana, almond milk and faddish coconut water, I wonder about the ebullient and swoony way it’s talked up on the menu. “L-theanine improves brain function and relieves stress,” states the description. “Matcha contains 100 times more antioxidants than regular green tea.” As much as I half-enjoy how these drinks basically promise me superhero powers with each sip, I wonder if Mythbusters needs to go to town on this sort of thing. (And is it a tad strange to boast of the beverage’s virtues when it’s served in a disposable cup – even if it’s biodegradable and made from corn starch?) Tasted good, though.
Something I have no doubts about – how great the pizza is at Coogee Pavilion. (I sort of wish we could order the smaller-sized kid’s portions, too, just so we could fit in more flavours to try!) When I posted a pic of the pizza on Instagram, Paul Donnelly of Ms G’s said it looked “dope”, and it definitely was. The base was all puffed up and airy, anchored by the right amount of smoke and blistery chars, and a little tang in the dough, too. A perfect raft for the Vegetariana ($20), with its light-footed topping of sweetly bruised San Marzano tomatoes, creamy Fior di Latte cheese, salty olives, scattering of Spanish onion, thin mushroom slices and a savoury interlacing of grilled zucchini and eggplant.
We also had no problem following this with way more carbs and cheese, such as the cubes of Fried Sebago Potatoes ($9), which draft in extra flavour from crisp thyme and chilli aioli, and the Broken Burrata ($22), with its stepping-stone sprinkling of pangrattato crumbs, and its raw offshoots of winter crudités. Will and Dan conquered the Pork Rillettes and Cornichon Toasts ($10) and Will needed no encouragement tackling the Coogee Diner Burger ($18), which definitely felt like a Mary’s-league offering, thanks to its soft squishy brioche bun – the kind that you can sink your fingerprints into – and a no-fuss ingredients list that subtracted everything but the clear essentials (lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle, American cheese, a mysterious burger sauce that wonderfully saturated everything by the end). We later learnt that credit for this creation goes to Dan Hong, a big selling point that is surprisingly left off the menu.
Continuing our menu-winning-streak, we also enjoyed the Rhubarb Sundae ($12), which comes in a camping-style enamel cup, and is loaded with meringue shards, rhubarb swirl ice cream, and vanilla sponge. The addition of poached rhubarb and granola makes you think this would be a pretty good breakfast-replacing dessert.
The only thing that underwhelmed us was the Grilled Baby Leeks ($22), which felt like an expensive side dish with no knockout headline element. It might’ve been more fun to try the Baby Kale with Creamy Lemon-Garlic Dressing, Shaved Manchego and Chewy Croutons ($18) instead. One for next time.
Also for an upcoming visit, Danielle Alvarez’s weekend breakfast menu, which starts this Saturday. It’s no carbon-copy of early morning staples, either. On offer is everything from the Fried Egg And Bacon Roll With Garlic Mayo and Kimchi ($15) to a flashback-evoking Montecristo Sandwich With Hank’s Jam ($16).
And for all of Coogee Pavilion’s epic-scale ambition, it’s nice to know that it has a sense of humour and whimsy. Will tells me that the men’s toilet has flippers on the wall, while the actual stalls include a poster for Flipper, the show.
What’s not to like, really?