When Andrew Buchanan opened Urbane in Brisbane’s CBD in 2001, few realised it was the start of a new dining legend in the river city.
The city itself was yet to be transformed, with work on Harry Sielder’s 53-storey skyscraper, Riparian Plaza, still 12 months away. The city itself was 130,000 people short of cracking one million (it’s now almost 1.2 million).
There were some culinary pioneers around — Philip Johnson’s now legendary e’cco bistro opened six years earlier in an old tea warehouse on the largely disused fringe of the CBD — but Brisbane’s culinary reputation was more closely aligned with the Fortitude Valley’s Chinatown and the nearby California Cafe, famed for its “trucker’s breakfast”: a gigantic mixed grill of eggs, steak, liver, kidney, chips, bacon, onion and tomato, having just turned 50.
Then, aged 25, Buchanan was back in the town where he’d been born and raised, with something to prove, having deferred his economics degree for a career in hospitality. Now a 24-year veteran of the industry, he’d spent time working in Byron Bay, Bali, and Sydney before heading home with ideas of opening a small bistro in Mary Street.
His initial plan was to create something successful, sell it and move onto bigger and better things elsewhere. Instead, he stayed to do just that.
“I thought maybe it was time to move back home because I thought it would be a good place to have my first crack at it,” he recounts.
“We rode the wave and started making a name for ourselves. It was good times, hard work, but we were working towards something.”
Today, Urbane is one of nation’s most acclaimed dining destinations, after Buchanan decided to take things up a notch with a multi-million dollar revamp to a fine diner in 2009. It shot to number 12 on the Gourmet Traveller top 100 Australian restaurants and was awarded three hats in the Good Food Guide. He also expanded the empire to open the Euro Brasserie and The Laneway Cocktail Bar next door eight years ago.
Buchanan’s efforts running the front of house were also recognised in 2014 when he was named Gourmet Traveller’s Maître d’ of the Year.
“It was nice to make a bit of noise. It’s nice to be here in Brisbane doing it,” he says.
The restaurateur’s pioneering, combined with growing recognition of the city’s increasingly sophisticated dining scene has seen others lured to Brisbane, including Sydney chef Matt Moran, who now has an Aria fine diner on Eagle Street Pier, while The Fink Group, best known for Quay and Bennelong at the Sydney Opera House, opened a northern outpost of their Italian fine diner, Otto, in the city last year.
Meanwhile, another Brisbane boy, Richard Ousby, a former young chef of the year, headed home two years ago to run Stokehouse Q, the South Bank version of legendary Melbourne restaurateur Frank van Haandel St Kilda dining destination.
All that increased competition is both a challenge and a celebration for Buchanan.
“There’s been a million new places open over the last couple of years. Lots of smaller venues and burger joints, because Brisbane likes to follow a trend,” he says, grinning.
“It’s changed a lot in that regard, there’s a lot more offerings and options out there for people, which is really good for the city.”
The city’s development boom will also lure in a new customer base, and it’s not just confined to the CBD. The biggest change, he argues is in the emergence of great local places to eat.
“We have a string of apartments going up, which is good, and the urban sprawl has really taken over, which has been great,” he said.
“I really notice it on Fridays now, because people can go home and they’ve got a suburban offering that’s good too. And they’re in areas that have never been mentioned for dining or bars before. That’s really taken off.
“There’s more ethnicity in the dining options. Sunnybank is the Chinese part of town, and you get these other areas you can seek out for certain styles of food.”
The Queensland government also helped by introducing small bar licences, which Buchanan says helped fuel some of that growth.
“The other thing that’s happened is a lot of the big corporate organisation have moved further afield from the CBD,” he says, citing the likes of the Bank of Queensland and Flight Centre, which has helped give those areas a critical mass of people.
Yes, Buchanan’s like most Queenslanders in declaring “the weather’s fantastic” when asked why he likes living there, but the other thing he appreciates in the close-knit feel.
“They say there’s not six degrees of separation in Brisbane, there’s about two,” he says.
“Brisbane’s not that mega-city. You come back to it when you’ve been away and it’s safe, it’s clean, it’s not the rat race and it’s not aggressive. And as you start to get older, you appreciate that more and more.”
But he can’t help pointing out another distinct advantage: “When you look at property prices, it’s certainly a lot more affordable. See what the median price in Sydney buys you up here — it’s huge!”
The other thing Buchanan loves is how easy it is to escape when he wants to.
“The local areas around it give you a lot more options relatively close to home. You’ve got Noosa just up the road, and the rest of the Sunshine Coast,” he says.
“The Gold Coast is 45 minutes from Brisbane and you can be swimming on some of the best beaches. And Stanthorpe has this great wine culture, and food. There’s a lot more people out there farming and doing interesting things.”
All of that feeds back into how Urbane and The Euro operate. A farmer from Maleny, a small, scenic town 90 kilometres from the city supplies most of their vegetables and a lot of our fruit. The rest comes from a local co-op.
Buchanan recently organised a staff party at one of the farms, taking along beer and pizzas to share with their suppliers.
“It’s one of those rare things and a chance to appreciate where our produce comes from,” he said.
“And it’s nice to build those relationships. You can really sustain these local people who are looking after the produce.”
At Urbane, you can feast on five or seven course degustation menus, with Buchanan’s Argentinean-born business partner and chef, Alejandro Cancino offering both onmivore and vegetarian options.
The sparse menu descriptions — Kangaroo, parsley, saltbush; Wagyu, beurre blanc, onion — only hint at the sophistication and artistry that follows.
Meanwhile, next door at Euro, he’s serving tapas, “Cotoletta” — a crumbed pork fillet, with slaw salad and caper sauce, and perhaps a 1.5kg steak on the bone as a daily special.
Down the back, Laneway is running cocktail making classes and offering whiskey flights.
It’s a trio that keeps Buchanan interested and busy.
“We have the high-end produce and quality wines in Urbane, where we try and push the boundaries, and also have the more relaxed side with Euro,” Buchanan explains.
“It’s never a dull day, especially when you’ve got two restaurants operating side by side.”
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