So what would Thomas White have thought …
When the decision was made, in 1993, one hundred and ten years after his death, to establish a restaurant in his former New Town family home and live there as well? It wasn’t a new idea, to operate a restaurant in a house, and live there. Generations of the same families had done that, sometimes for hundreds of years, in France and Italy.
Sydney and Hobart especially, have many gracious colonial houses, perfect for ambient dining, and often sited in mixed residential/commercial zones. Lebrina was and is still, one such house. Noted chef and restaurateur Graeme Phillips had previously done the same thing at Prospect House, Richmond, Tasmania. The late restaurateur and food critic, Mietta O’Donnell, was sufficiently intrigued and impressed by the Lebrina experience and Scott Minervini’s cooking, to include both in her 1999 book, ‘Great Australian Chefs,’ which she co-authored with her partner, Tony Knox.
Little did the creators of Lebrina Restaurant realize that their creation would last well into the next century, until the 4th December 2020 in fact – quite a record for a restaurant in this part of the world, though common in France, the birthplace of restaurants. We were surprised, as would Thomas White have been, probably.
Lebrina, The Restaurant, lasted for 26 yrs, not far short of the 35 years that Thomas White lived in the simple but elegant Georgian/Victorian villa that he built on the corner of New Town Road and Cross St. Nor did the house & restaurant owners fully appreciate that a decision to establish, Lebrina, The Restaurant, taken in the early part of 1993, would not be fully realized until well over a year later, Saturday 10th December 1994, the night that the restaurant quietly opened for business. Council & Licensing regulations, alterations (mainly plumbing) all slowed the process: a state of the art commercial kitchen, male and female toilets (well before the ‘unisex toilet’ days) and conversion of the upstairs area into self-contained accommodation for the owners, who wisely or unwisely had decided to live and work at Lebrina, to make life simpler!!
A former owner of Lebrina – there haven’t been many during the 170 year history of the house – once remarked to me and not at all ironically, ‘I suppose we could have run a restaurant here too!’ People who had either lived or ‘partied’ (more of that later) at Lebrina during the 20th century sometimes came to ‘check out’ what we were doing and often reminisced about their time in the house, either as residents, visitors or partygoers. As much as anything, my decision to chronicle the history of the house is a social one, my curiosity about its residents and the people whose lives were touched by Lebrina, whether they were twentieth century ‘party animals,’ members of or the descendants of two upper middle class 19th century families, or notably and latterly as fine dining restaurant patrons of Lebrina Licensed Restaurant.
I still have the privilege of living at and ‘owning’ Lebrina – soon after we bought the house in March 1993, we converted it into a restaurant and I lost any exclusive ‘rights’ as an owner, but I have happily shared this house with hundreds of people over 26 years – since the end of 2020, the charm, peace and elegance of this house have been restored to us, ours alone to enjoy, like Thomas White, but thankfully without the 13 children he fathered, who would have totally disrupted his days, perhaps more than the restaurant disrupted ours.
The Lebrina Website (2000’s) and before (1990’s)
Our website was evocative and short, to establish a very positive but not inflated expectation in the diners’ minds. In 1994, social media were unavailable, and the Internet was in its infancy; restaurants didn’t have websites, thus a restaurant ‘stood or fell’ on the basis of ‘word of mouth’ recommendations from happy diners or vice versa. We called our restaurant “Lebrina”, (the name of the house) and subtitled it ‘The New Town Bistro’ hoping to appeal to the local crowd and neighbourhood – back then, there was a pronounced ‘north and south of the GPO’ divide – diners from Sandy Bay, when they finally arrived, often wondered, aloud, why we were inconveniently located in the Northern suburbs.
In the weeks prior to opening, we ‘letter-boxed,’ using flyers to advertise our ‘coming’ and then relied on the ‘word of mouth grapevine’ to start the ripples – diners trickled in, eventually people started to talk, food critics started to notice, newspaper and magazine journalists sought us out – gradually, we developed a reputation, eventually we were ‘celebrated’ – this took about 5 years, not like some of today’s ‘success on debut, get the food critics onside first,’ openings. We didn’t have a website until maybe 10 years after opening – we just liked to be hospitable and keep the diners happy; this was well before the era of spin and the cult of celebrity chefs and restaurants; when the era of the Lebrina Website dawned, our first foray into an online presence, we said:
Lebrina, an à la carte restaurant, offers a dining experience reminiscent of being in a private home. Remarkably little was needed to change the fabric of Lebrina, Thomas White’s gracious 1845 New Town townhouse to Lebrina, the restaurant, in 1994. Dinner guests still admire the triple Flemish Bond brickwork as they arrive, then the New South Wales flame cedar or Celery Top Pine woodwork as they enter one of the dining rooms; the classic simplicity of a Georgian Victorian house sets the scene for the food they will experience, the cuisine inspired by Northern France and Italy utilising the best of Tasmanian produce. Lebrina, the house and Lebrina, the restaurant, share a name; Lebrina is a Koori word meaning ‘house.’ The restaurant is imbued with the quiet charm of the house.