Ten years ago, Canberra’s restaurant scene looked very different, says Gus Armstrong. Most of the restaurants catered to everyone and had a ‘the customer is always right’ attitude. They were safe, he says.
So, in 2013 when Armstrong opened Eightysix North in Braddon, it caused a stir. The aim was to create a place where Armstrong himself wanted to eat. The result was good quality food served in a relaxed setting eatery, almost like a canteen, with loud acoustics and no paper menus — only a blackboard showing what you could order that day.
“Hip hop, really nice share food, lots of raw stuff like ceviche, steak tartars, chicken liver parfaits,” says Armstrong. “I guess there were a lot of people who were quite confronted by our style of service, our confidence or slash arrogance, and defensiveness in regards to our concept.”
Those who weren’t fans of the restaurant hit out on social media at the time, commenting “They can’t talk to us that way” and “Those arrogant bastards”. Meanwhile, though, Eightysix North was getting cracking reviews. It even won a Chef Hat, awarded by the Australian Good Food Guide.
“The food was good, and the service was good — the levels were high quality — but I think people weren’t ready for a relaxed style of service,” says Armstrong. “The acoustics were too loud. It was a restaurant with a lot of attitude, and people at that time were used to wining and dining in really careful, quite conservative environments, so a lot of people didn’t like it.”
The backlash worked in the restaurant’s favour — everyone in Canberra wanted to see what was happening in the restaurant. Eightysix North had one of the most successful restaurant openings ever in Canberra.
Armstrong says, though, he made a conscious decision to lose the Chef Hat in subsequent years, as he was receiving complaints from people with preconceived ideas about what hatted restaurants should be like. Today, he says, the restaurant is more relaxed, but still with a good playlist, good cocktails and really nice food.
Dishes on the menu today include kingfish with mandarin and fermented chilli, Cone Bay barramundi with salted cucumber and white soy and banana prawn and saffron risotto. For dessert, choose from the likes of caramel popcorn sundae, banoffee pie with pretzels or chocolate Bavarian cake. The restaurant also serves a tasting menu and a vegetarian version of it.
In 2021, he opened Eightysix South in Woden, next to Alby. At the time of opening, he says, there was nothing around it, but since then, a lot of infrastructure has come in. Armstrong wanted to get in and get settled before the area boomed with restaurants and shops.
Aside from its little brother now being on the scene, Eighysix North is also a little less unique in that many other restaurants in Canberra do similar – good quality food in a relaxed setting.
“There are a lot of people who copied us when we started,” says Armstrong. “We were the first people in Canberra to do a restaurant that wasn’t for everyone.”