How Mary’s screwed the rules

Grand seafood platter

High-end restaurants are closing, live music venues are dying, and French food is out of fashion. Jake Smyth and Kenny Graham don’t care. The Mary’s duo manages a restaurant that breaks all the rules, writes Nicholas Jordan.

I have a friend who went to Mary’s Underground on one of its first nights, a 60 or so year old woman who commonly frequents

Potts Point restaurants with linen napkins. I was eager to know what she thought of two dudes, famous for deluxe McDonald’s and metal, taking over the Basement space, so I asked her, ‘how was it?’

“It’s a fine-dining restaurant, but how they used to be.”

When I hear the words fine dining I think about tablecloths thick enough to blanket a body, waiters who greet you as if there’s a class divide, and food that resembles scientific innovation and ego more than any ingredients you’d find on a grocer’s shelf. How they used to be? I had no idea what she meant until I went myself.

Kenny Graham and Jake Smyth’s restaurant is not a fine diner. It’s got the prices and ingredients of a fine diner, but in every other way it’s completely different, and completely unique.

However contradictory this may sound, it looks and feels like a harmonious fusion of the OG Mary’s in Newtown and the historic live-music venue that was here before. It’s red, black and timber. Carpet lines the floor (when was the last time we said that about a new restaurant?), and the walls are crimson and textured from stucco and bar-style back-lighting. The bar is timber, as is the furniture, besides a few plush velvet banquettes. It’s dark and loud enough to know this isn’t a venue that opens before 5pm; it’s one that’s open until 1am.

Then there’s the stage, filled every night with an energetic ensemble spewing sometimes experimental jazz and other times purely instrumental hip hop.

But this isn’t a bar or a live music venue. Those bands are just the support act to what head chef Joel Wooten and Group exec Jimmy Garside put on the table: whole rotisserie ducks, dry aged and lathered in mandarin sauce; a lobster split down the middle, heavily buttered and embraced by chips golden from duck fat; and a chestnut and cabbage pithivier disguised (for accessibility’s sake) on the menu as a ‘vegetable pie’.

“We didn’t want it to be modern, we wanted to lean on the rich culinary traditions of Europe but with a unique Australian take. That was important to me. I didn’t just want to roll out the hits of Escoffier and Fernand Point, it was about thinking about if those guys were in Australia, what would they have served a rotisserie duck with?” says Smyth.

It seems entirely old-fashioned, but because of how it’s sold to each table, how it’s written on the menu, and how it tastes, it’s exciting. “We wanted it to be celebration food. This is a bit of a lame thing to say these days and I’m going to sound like Marie Kondo, but I want it to spark joy. I want people to fucking smile when it gets put in front of them. I want it to be luxurious and indulgent.”

That’s exactly how it feels. It’s the cuisine of champagne ads – the kind of food that you want to eat on your 21st, your 60th, or your wedding.

Lobster Australienne with kurjera butter and duck-fat chips

But not everyone can place a $125 whole duck or a $34 vegetable pie on a menu and make it sexy. The team here can sell it too.

The staff treat you like you’ve been there every week, like a friend who knows when to chat and when to chill. They talk about the food with wonder and a rare honestly. “One of the things we told the staff, yeah it’s a fancy restaurant and the service is great, but if you’re getting on well with a table and they say ‘sit down and enjoy a wine with us when you finish,’ you can do that. It’s all part of the experience,” says Graham.

Graham and Smyth say they’re lucky to work with the team they have – Caitlyn Rees (group drinks boss), Charles Leong (sommelier) and Adam George (restaurant manager) – but it’s not luck. When I ask them if they could have found the same people for their first venue, they both say absolutely not.

“We spent the last six years sticking to our guns and sticking to our word. Being as honest as we can be. That built a reputation where people start to listen to what we want to say,” Graham says.

“People want to be a part of the narrative you’re spinning, the stories you’re telling,” adds Smyth. “To tell a story well, it takes time. It takes commitment, grind and humdrum. It takes mistakes and massive fuck-ups.”

Left to right: Caitlyn Rees, Kenny Graham, Jake Smyth, Charles Leong

That’s a good summary of why they thought they could pull off such an ambitious venture. Think about it this way: they’ve opened a 110-seater restaurant at a time when many are closing; they’re posting daily live bands in the knowledge that many live music venues have recently shut; and they’re selling it all at a price point that competes with some of the most renowned restaurants in Sydney. When I put this to them, how utterly unprecedented, ambitious and risky Mary’s Underground is, Graham says this:

“Not to sound obtuse or anything, but there are no fucking rules. Mary’s was a starting block – having fancy McDonald’s, listening to loud rock music and drinking Jack Daniel’s but with a high level of service and the opportunity to buy a $300 bottle of Burgundy.
“It’s about your engagement with the people. Most restaurants that fail, they have zero personality, they don’t give a fuck about you coming through the door. You could have the greatest food in the world, but you might not want to go back. It’s the about care factor, empathy and honesty.”

This is typical Graham and Smyth. All they care about is how people feel.

That’s what I think my 60-year-old friend was getting at. It’s not a fine diner because of the chef, the idea behind each dish, or how it looks. It’s because of how it makes you feel. Maybe for her, before technique and innovation were the heralds of a fine diner, it was just about how special a night out felt.

Graham and Smyth have achieved that, but in their minds, they haven’t finished. They’ve got bigger goals. “The story isn’t told on Mary’s Underground yet,” says Smyth. “We want to be a great restaurant. I want this to be an iconic restaurant in Sydney. That doesn’t get told just through time, it gets told through fucking blood, tears, sweat, laughter and passion. That’s the most exciting part of the venue for me. It’s not that we’ve opened it – opening it is the easy part – the hard part is turning up every day and getting better.”

Photography: Jason Loucas