John and Peter Canteen at CarriageWorks: a new restaurant in an historic Sydney building

The stunning transformation of Sydney’s historic CarriageWorks continues with the arts centre, now home to a white, bright and welcoming restaurant.

“A dining room should always be glamorous but it also needs to be comfortable,” says John Wilson, co-owner of John and Peter Canteen, the restaurant bringing fresh, effortless dining to CarriageWorks, a restored railway workshop in Sydney’s Eveleigh. Wilson worked with designer Iain Halliday of Sydney architectural firm BKH, the best in the business for comfort and glamour, he says. They brought in creative director Tony Assness, known for his work with the Sydney Dance Company, to add a theatrical effect in sync with the venue’s function as a performance space.

The aim was an ambience of accessible glamour, with an interior not typical of current fashion, says Halliday. “The scale, rusticity and antiquity of the space coloured our approach,” he says. “We sought to contrast this in a crisp but not clinical way.” The result is an inviting white oasis within the handsome industrial setting. The main dining area sits stage-like on a raised podium with a banquette surround, mirrored above by a box truss holding stage lights fringed, theatre style, with slit drapes, creating a form of “vertical containment” and a sense of intimacy.

Within, the white theme is accented with black, white and grey in the graphic 1970s Marimekko fabric and cushions that line the banquette. The hotchpotch of fabrics was one of Wilson’s touches. “It brings a bit of silliness. I like the fun of it. In design, I like symmetry at a basic level, then you’ve got a really good base to leverage the next layers off,” he says.

A central, round Carrara marble-topped table acts as a foil to the otherwise square tables in the main dining area to prevent the space feeling “overdesigned”, says Wilson, a regular Vogue Living contributor. “An interior design should never take itself too seriously, because it detracts from the whole experience. I don’t think any one element, especially in a dining room, should dominate.” The design features are the props to the business end of dining – people enjoying great food and each other’s company.

To assist conviviality, Wilson insisted the tables be made lower than usual to reduce the obstacle between diners. “It’s a subliminal thing,” he says, “but it was a big consideration for me.” The tonal graphic theme is easy on the eye, and doesn’t overshadow the food, which, after all, is what a dining room is about. “I wanted it so when the food hits the table, the room lights up.” Wilson, who owned Potts Point restaurant Osteria Moana before moving on to catering 10 years ago, designs the simple, sharp menu himself. “When I think about Italian food, I see endless possibilities. It’s very simple food, soulful and rustic. It’s all about flavour.”

The menu is stacked with flavour-packing dishes. Bright broad beans sing with curls of lemon zest and mint, topped with dollops of creamy ricotta. Early summer asparagus is partnered with a classic pecorino and pepper sauce. There’s fun in the sardine “sandwich”, the filleted fish layered with parsley crumbs, pine nuts and red chilli, while the weightier mains include traditional pairings such as roast pork with fennel, and lamb with rosemary salmoriglio, a rub of lemon juice, olive oil, garlic and herbs. The food doesn’t miss a beat and is unburdened by gimmicks. “I just want food to be delicious,” says Wilson. “It’s very straightforward and not fussed with. I like to get food on the plate with maximum three movements.”

In a truly enjoyable dining experience, the food plays a major role in an ensemble cast. “You want people to bounce out the door feeling like they’ve had a good time, and the best trick is for them to not be able to put a finger on one thing – it should be the sum of its parts,” says Wilson. Here, the combination of form and function working seamlessly together deserves a standing ovation.

John and Peter Canteen, CarriageWorks, 245 Wilson Street, Eveleigh NSW, (02) 8571 9004.

Originally published within Vogue Living Jan/Feb 2012. Available on news stands and on Zinio now.

Text: Toni Mason
Photographer: Chris Court

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