Australia gets a lot of things right. One of them is great food. But great food is not enough nowadays to ensure restaurant success. Zara Horner speaks with restaurant owner Steven Liu, who knows design makes all the difference.

Good service, ambience or atmosphere, and location are essential elements to the success of a restaurant, of course, but a lot also rests on the design creating a space that responds to all those.

‘Thoughtful,’ ‘artisanal’ and ‘exuberant’ are the words used to describe projects which have recently won awards.

The jury of the latest Eat Drink Design Awards – where Australia’s and New Zealand’s best designed restaurants, cafes, bars, installations and retail spaces for food and drink are recognised – noted that what united the entries was a “sense of ambition”, plus the fact that designers, and operators, “seem to be designing to and from a base of intrinsic practicality, whether that be the durability of materials and joinery, or the distinct lack of superfluous multi-million-dollar budgets.

“It is as if things have been taken down a notch in one way, and yet intensified in another.

“The projects with the smallest budgets showed the most attention to such detail and created the most thoughtful design moments.”

Restaurant designers point to the need to reflect a new energy and culinary maturity, noting that people – owners and diners – are looking for familiarity, and cultural connection.

Aussie Aussie Asia

Melbourne’s The Penny Drop began as a coffee pop-up. After realising that there was a gap in the market for a vibrant all-day eatery in the area, the penny metaphorically dropped for owner Steven Liu.

Today, The Penny Drop is a permanent 100-seater restaurant. Interior designed by Golden, the space combines high ceilings and muted earthy tones “to create a warm and inviting oasis,” Liu says.


The Penny Drop’s “modern Australian” menu offers a range of dishes from breakfast classics through to unique share plates with an Asian-inspired twist.

Art deco light fittings and textured surfaces were introduced to a large commercial shell to create a playful, classy café-restaurant. Old-world materials – dark timber veneers, Dalmation-coloured granite and gold fixtures – mix among a fan of circular forms – light fittings, timber room dividers, a large curving bar, and the signature brass penny pendants, angled for fun.

Restaurant design now is about sophistication married up with comfort.

With a strong conceptual focus, The Penny Drop designers looked for ideas that had “positive emotional affect and functionality as well as a uniqueness behind each design detail.” They were “pedantic about material quality and [we] revere customisation. Our practice is to cultivate brilliance from the innermost details, then radiate those elements back out.

“The effect is exclusive, but not branded; unspoken [yet] deeply felt.”

Client reaction

“From the beginning, we wanted to create something that would stand out from the crowd, but would also be a good representation of the culture of the local area,” says Liu.

“We wanted to be a bit brave with the use of soft textures and colour. I think the open and simple design is making a come back compared to say the industrial, exposed brick type look.

“The circle is a symbol of harmony in Asian cultures and our menu is modern Australian with Asian fusion, so the design reflects all of that as it uses the circle within a square design theme.”

And so far, reaction has been favourable. “Everyone seems to really like it,” Liu says. “So, fingers crossed!”