UNDER THE RADAR
Gourmet Traveller|February 2022
From Pino’s in Newcastle to Cornersmith in Sydney’s Annandale, more and more eateries are opting not to trumpet their plant-based credentials. NADIA BAILEY finds out why.
NADIA BAILEY

At most restaurants, if diners get up and walk out on a regular basis, it’s cause for alarm. At Pino’s – a charming Italian spot in the Newcastle suburb of Islington – it’s something of a matter of course.

“At least once a week, we'll get tables that just walk straight out,” says director and chef Dion May. On top of the walk-outs, there’s a pretty good chance of copping an earful of negative feedback. “It happens at least a good few times a week, if not nightly,” he says.

These strong reactions aren’t about the quality of the food. Or even what’s on the menu. Rather, it’s what’s not on the menu that sends diners into a tailspin. Because although Pino’s is classically Italian – serving up a small, seasonally driven offering of bruschetta con caponata, cacio e pepe, gnocchi fra diavolo and the like – nothing on the menu contains dairy or meat.

Of course, this is hardly a radical act in the year 2022. But where other restaurants put their vegan credentials front and centre, Pino’s takes the opposite approach. Terms like vegan, vegetarian and plant-based go unmentioned on its website and social media. The staff don’t hype up the fact that the ragù derives its umami from mushrooms or that the cheese is made from cashews. But Newcastle is not Sydney – the population is smaller and tastes can be more conservative. Hence the walk-outs: there are certain assumptions people tend to make when they realise what kind of restaurant it is.

Though the strategy at Pino’s may seem counterintuitive – it risks missing out on the crowd who are actively seeking plant-based options, as well as alienating customers who just want to have a traditional Bolognese – for May, there’s a specific type of diner he’s hoping to reach.

“It’s people who might not have eaten here in the first place if they knew,” he explains. He’s less interested in those who are already vegan or vegetarian than he is in people who assume that a plant-based restaurant has nothing to offer them.

He’s found that once diners have gotten over their initial reticence and start eating, there are no more walkouts. “We see people come through and be shocked that it’s vegan – and then they end up becoming regulars,” he says.

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