HERE’S THE BEEF
NO PHONES ON THE TABLE AT THIS SPECIALITY ITALIAN STEAK RESTAURANT, WHOSE OWNERS FULLY INTEND FOR IT TO BECOME A SYDNEY INSTITUTION.
There was moment at a steak restaurant in Tuscany when Warren Burns was given the death stare by a little old nonna sitting at a nearby table. His offence was that he had taken out his mobile phone from his pocket and placed it on the table. Burns was travelling around Italy with his business partner and childhood friend, James Bradey, looking for ideas to set up their own restaurant specialising in steak– bistecca in Italian – back home in Sydney. The social shaming got Burns to put his mobile phone away and instead helped shape the experience that was to become Bistecca.
“At the end of the night, we had a good chat and we really enjoyed ourselves,” Burns admits of disconnecting from his phone. “So we thought let’s not touch our phones for the rest of the holidays and so our phones did not come out at dinner. We thought if we can try and do this in Sydney, get people away from their phones. We don’t want to piss people off but we are here to try and create an experience and we think you will enjoy your time more if you put your phone away.”
Mobile phones, however, were never the main focus of Bistecca, it was simply good food and good booze. And more particularly, a revered Tuscan cut of steak – bistecca alla Fiorentina – that Bradey and Burns came across. That is the only main course they serve in Bistecca, located in a bunker on Dalley Street in the CBD, with entry through a laneway. Cut and weighed and presented to diners, the steak is then cooked over charcoal in an open hearth that dominates the 50-seater dining space. The restaurant, which opened to critical acclaim in July, also has a cocktail bar and a wine shop.
“People come in here and for a moment, they forget where they are,” Burns says of the underground restaurant (which also has tiny lockers to put away your mobile phone away for the night). “Because we are in the basement, there are no outside windows, they can’t see the outside and it helps them immerse themselves in what we want to achieve.”
Bradey and Burns met at age 12 at high school in country NSW (Burns grew up on a Black Angus cattle farm and Bradey declares him “definitely part heifer”). They went into hospitality together after working in pubs in the United Kingdom while travelling. They started off as dishwashers and never thought it would turn into a career (Bradey has degrees in exercise physiology and interior architecture) but the pair loved it and quickly rose through the rank in top establishments.
They returned to Sydney in the late 2000s and were horrified at the lack of good bars and restaurants on offer. “The concept of hospitality did not exist,” says Bradey. “So we thought, let’s just do our own thing.” They were among the first entrepreneurs to take advantage of NSW’s small bar licence changes and opened Grandma’s Bar in a basement on Clarence Street in the city. It was a hit. Next came The Wild Rover in Surry Hills and Wilhelmina’s and Burgerhood in Balmain. Bradey and Burns then spent two years working on Bistecca and scouring the city for the right site. “Just doing one thing and one thing well holds us in good stead long term,” says Burns of the specialist Bistecca. “We are not a flash in the pan. We want to be an institution. We want to be here in 30 years’ time: when you are in Sydney, you go out for a steak at Bistecca.”