Casual diners now have a place at waterfront Catalina, with the bar having undergone an invisible transformation.
There aren't many restaurants in Sydney quite like Catalina. A Rose Bay waterside institution of 20 years, this award-winning destination from Michael and Judy McMahon offers diners panoramic views of the harbour, impeccable world-class service and a menu sporting much-loved dishes almost as old as the place itself. One tiny problem though, is that if you're not a regular of the fine dining scene, or if places like this are very much once in a blue moon, you might be a little intimidated by its reputation (and prices) if you ever fancy simply popping in for a bevvie and a bite. Well, hopefully not anymore.
To celebrate the summer and a space so often overlooked, the bar at Catalina has had an invisible transformation with the aim to turn the formal a little more informal. The bar, to the right of the main restaurant, looks the same: it's still its chic, light and elegant self, offering high tables and stalls to while away an hour or afternoon on the outside decking that stretches around the peripheral of the restaurant, but the menus have been developed and reworked to offer a more casual experience while still offering Catalina's signature charm.
If you've come here just to drink before, or perhaps enjoyed a glass pre- or post-lunch, you'll notice the cocktail list has almost tripled in size, including martinis, sparking wine cocktails, a whole page of fruity numbers, mocktails and an eye-catching premium cocktail list. Naturally we had to see if the $45 XO of Paul Giraud XO Cognac, Grand Marnier, creme de peche and fresh lemon juice was worth the price tag. To be honest, while it was moreishly delicious, it wasn't, but only because there are plenty of cheaper options available. But if $45 isn't particularly expensive to you, you'll rack up one hell of a bar tab and love every second doing it.
For the more budget-conscious folk, you can easily enjoy yourself without breaking the bank. Nearly all cocktails range in the low $20s (like most small bars these days and thankfully don't come in those teeny tiny glasses that while looking the part only hold a thimble full of booze). On our visit we sampled the adorably pink and sherbetty Cat Thai ($22) of Pampero Anejo and Blanco rum and Cointreau with a dash of orgeat and fresh raspberries, as well as the Citrus Campari 'Martini' cocktail ($20) of Bombay gin, Campari, lemon juice, orange juice and orange bitters. The latter came from the request "give me something bitter," and sadly wasn't particularly. Happily, it went down a treat anyway.
Food certainly isn't forgotten, including three options of their famous Sydney Rock oysters, and neither is the Catalina dining experience: if you order from the now small but well-rounded bar food menu you'll receive your very own place setting wherever you're sat, which is pretty damn fabulous. We decided on the nicely beer-battered and melt-in-your-mouth soft goujons ($15) with sauce gribiche (think fancy tartare) and some superbly salty and fresh Ortiz anchovies with tomato salsa on grilled sourdough ($14). Both dishes were just the right size to share, and alongside cocktails went down a treat. The only critique here is service was a little shaky (napkins forgotten, plates taken when not finished) especially in comparison to the flawless standard inside
But to be honest, in a setting like Catalina, pretty much anything goes down a treat and most small problems are easily forgotten. With sea planes bobbing gently or taking off in a flurry of noise and excitement to your right; the greens and blues of the harbour in front of you, and the millionaire's playground yacht parking lot to the left, you'd be hard pressed not to enjoy yourself. Let's just say hats off to Catalina for making themselves more accessible. Hats off indeed.