Rain or shine, Catalina is every bit the reliable outfit it has been for the past three decades of oysters and add-ons.

Callan Boys

Good Food hat15.5/20


The sky above Catalina is bruised and angry. Shark Island is barely visible through the pounding rain and I’m wondering how long I can sit on a whisky rather than face the return trip to the car. Unless you’re Bob Dylan or a U2 frontman, it’s not the kind of day that requires a pair of sunglasses. But all of a sudden, blue sky! Sun! Guests by the window recoil like Dracula at daybreak.

This has happened many times before, however, and well-scrubbed floor staff have a supply of polarised sunnies for anyone who’s left their Barton Perreiras in the glove box. “Would you like to borrow a pair?” If you were looking for one reason why Catalina is still immensely popular after three decades in business, this level of service – the kind of service that has sunglasses at the ready – might be it.

There’s also that harbour view, flanked by Point Piper and the School of the Sacred Heart’s Hogwartsian brickwork. There’s the sweeping room with its smooth curves and bronze Brett Whiteley pelican, plus a shiny, new, travertine entrance installed after a refurbishment last year.

When lunch calls for white linen napkins and good ol’ fashioned hospitality, Catalina nails the brief.

The food is dependable and the cellar one of the greats, building on the wine-loving legacy of restaurateur Michael McMahon, who founded the Rose Bay fine diner with his wife, Judy, in 1994.

Michael passed away in 2020, but Judy is still very much at the helm as Catalina’s director. (Their son, James, has stepped up to the restaurant manager role, while daughter Kate is in charge of events.) Since running Barrenjoey House at the height of the 1980s, Michael and Judy made Sydney a better place to eat oysters, drink semillon and lose track of the day.

At Catalina, rock oysters ($7.50 each) continue to be shucked to order and are served on ice, as they should be everywhere.

The three-course, fixed-price, a la carte menu is $150. If you want the poached marron tail (served as a sort-of salad with soft potato, crisp saltbush and nicely balanced saffron beurre blanc), that will be $20 on top. Roast suckling pig is an extra $60 if you’re sharing, or $120 if you want the whole lot to yourself, which would be insane. A pitch-perfect martini is $24.

If, like me, you’re on an average household income, you’re probably not coming here every week. But when lunch calls for white linen napkins and good, ol’ fashioned hospitality, Catalina routinely nails the brief.

Crudo of red emperor and amaebi prawn.
Crudo of red emperor and amaebi prawn.Jennifer Soo

All the better if rain is belting down, I say, and you can cosy up with a glass of something bold and red. Sommeliers Andrew de Vries and Jarrod Mills were both on deck on the blustery Saturday when I visited recently and more than happy to provide affordable wine recommendations by the glass (affordable compared to the four-digit bottles of First Growth Bordeaux being decanted near the posh seats, anyway).

Red emperor crudo with amaebi spot prawns only needs a crisp, $16 glass of Bourke and Travers 2023 Clare Valley riesling to bring out the delicate, sea-sweet flavours.

For the butterflied baby snapper – deboned, deftly cooked and nudging smoked-garlic aioli and a tangy rubble of capers, croutons, diced cornichons and green olives – it’s a vibrant, grenache blanc blend from Chateau La Nerthe in the Rhone Valley ($20).

Go-to dish: White Pyrenees lamb rump with potato dumplings, celeriac and heirloom vegetables.
Go-to dish: White Pyrenees lamb rump with potato dumplings, celeriac and heirloom vegetables.Jennifer Soo

Lamb rump takes McLaren Vale’s rather intense and delicious Yangarra 2021 GSM ($21). And what a rump it is, too, sourced from the Pyrenees Ranges in central-west Victoria. Four blush-pink slices with ribbons of grassy fat are rested on heirloom carrots, potato dumplings and thick, sticky jus. Long-time executive chef Mark Axisa brings everything together with a rim of celeriac puree and gets me excited for more root vegetables through winter.

Our waiter recommends fries on the side but, at $16 a bowl, I was expecting something … more. Some thick-cut, triple-cooked crunch? A dusting of seaweed powder? These could have been chips from any bowling-club bistro.

I’m also surprised that when we ask to have the petits fours packaged up (we’re stuffed after a slice of textbook lemon tart), the sweets return in a plastic takeaway container. At this price level, you might expect a little cardboard box.

These are minor grumbles in the grand scheme of a great day out. Catalina is every bit the reliable outfit it has been for the past three decades of oysters and caviar add-ons.

For a restaurant that offers several bottles north of $5000, staff are refreshingly down-to-earth, too, eternally adaptable to all occasions, personal finances and weather. No sunglasses? No worries.

The low-down

Vibe: Oh, we do like to drink chardonnay beside the seaside

Go-to dish: White Pyrenees lamb rump with potato dumplings, celeriac and heirloom vegetables (as part of a fixed-price, a la carte menu)

Drinks: Exceptional wine list featuring more than 800 bottles and a diverse by-the-glass list; plenty of show-off cocktails and spirits

Cost: Two-course, a la carte menu, $120 (Monday-Thursday only); three-course menu, $150

This review was originally published in Good Weekend magazine

Restaurant reviews, news and the hottest openings served to your inbox.

Sign up

Callan BoysCallan Boys is editor of SMH Good Food Guide, restaurant critic for Good Weekend and Good Food writer.

From our partners