Daniel Sofo at Firefly Neutral Bay Talks Restauranting in Sydney
Daniel Sofo is known in Sydney for none other than Firefly in Neutral Bay.
It’s a small, cornerside side share plates and wine bar that after having been in full operation for over eight years, has carved a very nice, generous name for itself as the place to go to for quality food in bite-sized portions and more than just ‘quality’ pinot noir.
We sat down with him to talk about all things food, restaurants, Sydney and his life’s work…
On hospitality and mentoring
How have you seen the small bar scene change in Sydney since you first opened?
My first small bar was the original Firefly, opened back in 2004. It was a 40-seater wine and share plates venue right on the waterfront at Walsh Bay. At that time sharing food only happened when you went for Chinese or Spanish. Sydneysiders drank at a pub, club or larger type bar venue possible associated with a hotel with 3 or 4 wines offered by the glass being the norm.
When Firefly first opened we actually had to call ourselves a ‘tapas’ bar- not because we served Spanish food, rather it was the only way to get our customers to understand that the idea was smaller plates designed for sharing. I was licensed as a restaurant with a ‘reception’ area (2 seats) where guests were ‘permitted to drink without a meal before being shown to their table’, amongst other regulations too archaic to mention.
Sydney has come a long way, and a change in licensing has facilitated that but equally so Sydney’s dining public has embraced small establishments offering a focused concept and doing so exceptionally well. Wine bars, rum bars, bars offering a haircut and a martini made with any one of fifty amazing gins, New Orleans bars specialising in Sazeracs & swing dancing, craft beer bars with 200 beers to choose from. It’s the passionate young operators who have dreamed this stuff up and Sydneysiders have lapped it up.
What advice would you give to those looking to open a venue in Sydney’s current climate?
Audit yourself. Does what you want to bring to market transcend a fad? Can you evolve it to be just as relevant and timeless in 5 years time as it is today? Is your motivation to bring your vision to life strong enough to sustain you in great adversity? Do you have the know-how and resources to tell the world about your great venue? If you answered yes then you should definitely open your own place. Go For it.
Mentoring is clearly important to you, what have those who have worked under you and you have mentored gone on to achieve?
More than a half dozen of my alumni have gone on to open their own bars, restaurants, cafes, drinks consulting venues or taken on significant senior management roles in prestigious hospitality venues.
What do you think makes a successful mentor?
The desire and the motivation to leave people better than you found them, to lift up those around them and to understand that when you lift up everyone around you, you will also rise with the tide.
What do you think makes Firefly stand out from other small bar and restaurants in Sydney?
Firefly is a timeless institution, it transports you to another place. We aren’t fine dining, we do simple classic share plates well, comforting food that isn’t pushing any boundary but is still extremely satisfying. Anyone can come to Firefly, we have a lot of love to give and it shows. At any given time we can play host mum dad and the kids, tinder first dates, corporates blowing off steam and a sweet old lady sipping on a peppermint tea. Somehow they all happily co-exist here.
The menu is a fairly eclectic mix, what is the inspiration behind it?
It’s all about comfort classics, which are easy to share. Dishes that works well with wine, or equally enjoyable by themselves.
You have a vast selection of wines on offer at Firefly, is there a customer favourite?
It’s got to be Pinot.
Your wine offering features many Australian sources wines, why do you feel this important?
Where do I begin…Our winemakers especially the new generation of ‘young guns’ are making some of the most interesting, honest, and delicious wines on the planet. Imported wine is also expensive and also brings with it carbon miles, why ship wine from the other side of the planet when what we have here is so good!
Do you feel its important to source Australian wines for your menu, how do you go about doing this?
My wine offering is 75% Australian, it is so important that I have entertained the idea of having an exclusively Aussie list, but that could be seen as prejudiced and limiting. Generally I choose to deal with small Aussie-centric distributors who are likeminded (Vigorous Brothers for example). I also go to trade shows, tastings and try and visit wineries and talk to the makers as well.
What is your favourite dish on the menu?
Aranchini. How can a humble rice ball be so good!
What are your hopes for the future of Firefly?
I will be expanding to a few new locations in the near future but don’t ever want to be a chain. Wherever I open I want to be a ‘local gem’, an institution loved by the community.
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