Flower Drum celebrates 40 years

Flower Drum
Father and son team of the Flower Drum restaurant, Jason and Anthony Lui. 15 August 2013. The Age Sat News. Photo: Eddie Jim EJZ

June 6, 2015

Peter Barrett

Australia’s best Chinese restaurant has just turned 40.

Since opening in 1975 and scoring two chef’s hats in the Age Good Food Guide’s first edition in 1980 the Melbourne restaurant’s lofty hospitality standards have rarely faltered.

Impeccable service and simple but exquisite Cantonese fare such as Peking duck and baked crab shell have made it an institution with diners, many of whom have been going since they were youngsters. Among them is Eugene Tong, whose parents first brought him there for yum cha, aged two. Now the restaurant is “almost” a second home to the 32-year-old South Yarra businessman. “I’ve been to Chinese restaurants around the world and I’ve eaten at a number of restaurants in the San Pellegrino list and when I’m overseas I still crave and look forward to coming back to Melbourne and having a meal at the Flower Drum.”

Food critic, author and former Good Food Guide co-editor Rita Erlich says the restaurant has influenced the local food and wine scene in several ways. “The first thing it did was to give Chinese food huge standing and it also made it part of Australia,” she says, adding that Flower Drum helped integrate wine and alcoholic beverages with Chinese food as well as injecting the cuisine with a sense of style and glamour. “For a long time Flower Drum was regarded not as the best Chinese restaurant in Australia but the best restaurant.”

Original owner Gilbert Lau recalls a nervous but uneventful opening night on Monday May 26, 1975. “We didn’t burn the fish or the beef,” he laughs. “But we probably didn’t do it that well, either.” In 1985 he moved the restaurant to its current digs in Market Lane (opening on June 18 and operating both sites until 1988). In 2002 he stepped down, selling the restaurant to three long-serving staff: chef (since 1981) Anthony Lui, Patricia Fung and William Shek.

Lui’s son Jason joined the restaurant in 2003, eventually taking over front of house and winning the 2012 Good Food Guide’s Service Excellence award. Now 37, he’s implemented subtle changes including engaging with social media and opting for a twice-daily-changing printed menu instead of the ‘secret’ verbal specials many regulars were used to.

Lui says while up to 30 per cent of the restaurant’s dishes are as they were 40 years ago (egg rolls were 70 cents each in the 80s, now they’re $6.50) he’s always thinking about ways to innovate. And as for celebrating this year’s milestone? “I think we’ll just try and gather everyone together, past and present … and roast a few suckling pigs and have a bit of a night for it.”

This article was originally published in the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald.