It was November 16th, 2011 when the doors to Restaurant Mason first opened. Throughout that time the much-loved Newcastle restaurant has scored a legion of loyal fans and has been consistently recognised as being one of Australia’s most outstanding restaurants, as evidenced by the multitude of awards on display in the restaurant.
So when the announcement was made on March 13 by owners Chris and Ami Thornton that the time had come to close the doors, the response received was more than a little overwhelming as Chris explained.
“Aimee’s computer nearly caught on fire after we posted the news, the response has been amazing, very humbling.”
Whilst the decision to close may have come as a surprise to those on the outside, for Chris and Ami, the idea of closing their beloved restaurant has been in the back of their minds for quite some time.
“It’s been on the cards for about 3 years, when we came out of Longworth House which just ruined us. We got ourselves into a massive financial hole there but we managed to dig ourselves out of it through Covid. Covid was really good to us, the response we had from our takeaway was phenomenal, together with the Government assistance and our landlord who really looked after us.
“When Covid hit we were dead in the water and we had made the call to shut. At one point I even said to the team that I only had enough money to pay for a week’s worth of food and to cover everyone’s entitlements, and once that’s gone I won’t be able to afford to pay their wages. We decided as a team that we were going to continue on regardless, and that’s what we did.
“Then takeaway took off, we were doing 150-160 meals a night, the support was incredible and it was really good for the guys as they were able to come to work and get paid their regular wage and have that normality in their life.”
While the last few years have been tough, when asked if there was any specific moment that brought on the decision to close, Chris explained it wasn’t one particular moment, more a culmination of things and the timing being right.
“Antonio our Restaurant Supervisor, who has been with us for 11 years, decided it was time to move onto something else, so that was one thing. Our lease was up for renewal in November last year, plus with food getting more expensive and staff getting harder to find, it just felt like now was a good time. Go out while the going is good.”
You reached the almighty milestone of 10 years in business last November, were you able to celebrate in anyway?
“We did, we didn’t hold anything major, we had just come out of lockdown and there was too much going on, so we took the staff out for lunch. Ten years is a long time and it’s been quite nice talking to our customers who have been with us not just from Restaurant Mason but from when I was at Restaurant II. We’ve been a big part of a lot of people’s lives, some of their most important occasions and it’s been nice to reflect on that.”
Newcastle’s dining scene has changed significantly since you first opened Restaurant Mason, what has been the biggest change that you’ve noticed?
“The quality of offerings in Newcastle has definitely upped its game big time, back when we started it was literally us, Bacchus, and Subo. There was a quality high end offering but there was a big gap to the next level. It’s that middle ground which has really lifted, with pubs like the Burwood, and the Prince and restaurants such as Habesha, Asa don, and Nagisa. Now there’s this massive range in the middle which is really cool to see, there’s so many options.”
After 11 years in business what do you look back on and feel most proud of?
“I’d say the relationships we’ve built, particularly with our staff.
“Our Restaurant Manager Dani has been with us for 10 years, our Restaurant Supervisor Antonio also more than 10 years, and Kyle been with us for around 5 years. Ami and I are happily married, and it hasn’t cost us our marriage [laughs].”
“I don’t think you’ll ever see a group like this again, or see that level of experience, and if it wasn’t for those guys Restaurant Mason wouldn’t be what it is.
“I’d also say it’s the way we’ve been able to sustain our consistency and reputation for so long. I’ve been lucky to have had some great Head Chefs over the years and we’ve been able to maintain that level of quality and consistency along the way and the fact that people are sad to see us go.”
What’s the plan for your final last weeks?
“Our last day is on Saturday 9th April, and the whole last week will be a set menu of our 4 most popular dishes. Then the final night we’ve invited along friends and family and some VIP customers, and we’ll be trying as hard as possible to drink as much of the wine we have left over as possible.”
Have you completely shut the door on the hospitality industry?
“Oh no way, not at all, I am not leaving hospitality, I will always be a chef and Chris from Restaurant Mason and I will always cook. I am planning on taking some time off and then I will continue working with the TAFE and private events.
“I’ve fought the good fight for 11 years, and Restaurant Mason has been responsible for raising customer expectations, and dispersing really good staff, so the next move for me is a little more personal.”
What are you going to miss the most?
“Without a doubt the staff and customers. I’ll miss that interaction. Dani and I have been working together for 13 years, if you count Bistro Tartine, so it’s going to be weird not seeing him and all of the team on a regular basis.
“I’ve been doing this for so long enough now that some of our staff and customers have been a part of my life for almost 20 years, I’ve been fortunate to have met people from all areas of life that I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to meet if I hadn’t had the restaurant which I am so grateful for. It’s been a good run.”