NINE years after it opened in the "wild" west of Hunter Street, Newcastle restaurant Subo - the only hatted restaurant in the city - is officially on the market.
Chef Beau Vincent and his wife Suzie - who met in the kitchen of iconic Sydney restaurant Guillaume at Bennelong before forging their own reputation in Newcastle - say their decision was prompted in part by the pandemic, when they reflected on their business and role as parents to their sons, aged 5 and 3.
"It made us assess how our lives are best lived with our kids and it just made us realise it was time to be brave, take the next step and do something a bit out of our comfort zone," Mrs Vincent said. "It was about work-life balance, it's about aspirations for our family and wanting to be there while the kids are young."
The move to sell the business and associated lease comes two years after Mr Vincent - a former Lexus Australian Young Chef of the Year who began his career as a teen peeling potatoes at the pub in his home town of Walcha before working at lauded Sydney restaurants including Tetsuya's and Guillaume at Bennelong and Melbourne's Bistro Guillaume - stepped away from the pans at Subo to give rising chefs a crack.
He is now an on-call firefighter, a role that gives him greater flexibility as a father.
"Things changed when we had the boys, I wanted to be with them more," he says. "It was the pressure of working to a certain standard but I think it was more I wanted to be with the kids, I didn't want to be at work all the time."
When Vincent and his wife, a qualified chef and Subo's front of house manager, opened their 40-seat-restaurant in 2011, Newcastle West was, they recall, "a bit rough" and lacking the swag of venues that have since opened.
They have watched their strip of Hunter Street become a hot spot for new apartment complexes, cafes and bars: "There are lots of people injecting money into this end of town," Mr Vincent said.
The Vincents say business has been good to them, even in times of pandemic and recession.
"Our decision to sell is not really a financial one - the restaurant gives us good wage security and many positive things, it's more family driven, it's just time," Mr Vincent said.
During the lockdown, the couple launched a Subo At Home menu that customers could easily put the finishing touches on at home.
"We have a lot of fantastic regular guests so they were on board immediately and I suppose in lockdown people were on an exploratory mission of what they could do at home," Mrs Vincent said.
"There were obviously challenges but the Subo team decided to stay together and I honestly don't think I felt more supported as a business owner. The team knows that."
When Subo re-opened its dining room in July under head chefs Tom Clode and David Gleadhill, it was rewarded with its best monthly takings since inception.
"It blew us away - I think everyone was inside for too long and, once the lockdown lifted, they wanted to go out again," Mr Vincent said.
The couple may be selling but they hope their legacy will be continued by a new owner who will carve out their own reputation but continue their legacy of a warm but polished venue renowned for its innovation.
"It feels bittersweet because we are leaving something that works and we know there were a lot of good times and we made people happy but hopefully we can pass that on to someone who can continue it - we want to keep Subo as a brand and as an institution in Newcastle," Mr Vincent said.
"With the purchase of the business and name there is an expectation," Mrs Vincent said.
"They don't have to keep Subo going," reflected her husband, "but it's definitely a worthwhile option because it's been successful so far."
Subo received one hat in the Sydney Morning Herald's most recent Good Food Guide Awards, which were postponed this year. It was the only Newcastle venue to receive a hat. In the Hunter Valley, Muse Restaurant received two hats and Bistro Molines, Margan Restaurant and Muse Kitchen received one hat.
Since opening, Subo is the only Newcastle restaurant to be awarded two GFG chef hats and hasbeen ranked in Gourmet Traveller's top 100 restaurants.
Some say Newcastle is a burger and schniddy town, but the couple believe there is still a place for fine dining.
"So many of our guests are looking for that experience where they feel cared for in the way their food is served, the way staff look after them," Mrs Vincent said. "One customer told us that being with us was like going to a spa. It's what we have always tried to achieve and that will never go out of fashion."
It feels bittersweet because we are leaving something that works.Beau Vincent
In a high pressure and fickle industry, Mr Vincent feels proud that the restaurant has quite simply succeeded since he and his wife opened in November, 2011.
"We wanted it to be somewhere where our guests could enjoy themselves and relax. As for the food, we wanted it to be better than a bistro offering but not exactly fine dining, tasty and interesting, something that the diners were comfortable with," he said.
"Starting out, we were just hoping not to fail. We won lots of awards and recognition - it was overwhelming and gave a feeling of accomplishment. It was a really nice feeling to provide that, to look through from the kitchen to see everyone having a great time and all the staff working to the best of their ability."
Having built the restaurant from the ground up, Mrs Vincent hopes to pass that on to someone to create "that same kind of happiness".
"Hospitality people who have worked with us have said our place has been an oasis, the guests are happy, we are happy. It doesn't happen often to have all those things positive," she says.
Lisa Margan, with winemaker husband Andrew founder of one-hatted Margan Restaurant at Pokolbin, said Subo had "set the bar high" and mentored hospitality talent in Newcastle.
"It was the first two-hatted restaurant [in Newcastle] and set an incredible standard for both front of house and the calibre of food," she said.
"Both Suzie and Beau are kitchen background but Susie bought polish, precision and warmth to the front of house, they've done amazing things for the food scene."
Mrs Margan believes there is still appetite for fine dining in the city.
"Maybe we are calling it refined dining because maybe we are all frightened of fine dining because it seems out of context in a COVID world but ...I think enough people appreciate love and care in their dining experience."
Herald food critic Liz Love said the Vincents had encouraged others to "try and up their game" as "one of the best" in Newcastle.
Tim Montgomery, co-founder of Rascal and former head chef at defunct hatted restaurant Bacchus, said the Bacchus, Restaurant Mason, Muse and Bistro Molines had ensured a "burgeoning" dining scene in the Hunter.
"When Subo arrived they brought a more progressive and cutting edge style of experience. They were riding the wave of the new Bistronomy movement and they really marked the moment Newcastle grew up as a city," he said. "It would be a great shame to lose another Newcastle trailblazer that has really become a Newcastle icon."
Mr Montgomery said he understood the reasons cited by the Vincents for hitting pause.
"Hospitality and specifically high-end dining is often relentless and thankless, particularly finding time for family and having a work life balance," he said. "When we had our daughter, my priorities completely changed - I was no longer willing to spend 80 hours a week in the manner I was in fine dining, which led to undertaking Rascal."
The Vincents have a few "foody" business ideas but their focus is getting their eldest son ready for school and settling in to home life.
They say they will miss what has been their "mission" - bringing joy to diners in an intimate environment.
"Just knowing that we provided a place for people to reconnect or connect for the first time over food is special," Mrs Vincent says. "Having that shared enjoyment is my life blood, that is why I am in service, that is going to be hard to give up."
Now more than ever, Mr Vincent says, "people want to get out more and enjoy and appreciate things more."
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