SOS: is ethical dining the new black?

May 9, 2007

A recent birthday celebration was deemed occasion enough to make a visit to SOS, Melbourne’s first and only self-proclaimed ‘veg-aquatic restaurant’.  Opened less than a year ago, SOS is the brain-child of Paul Mathis, food entrepreneur and founder of a long list of trend-setting dining establishments in Melbourne (Taxi/Transit Lounge, Upper and Lower House, Chocolate Buddha).  With this parentage, one can’t help (rather cynically) regarding the restaurant’s ‘sustainable food’ philosophy as simply a savvy marketing ploy. 

But does it matter?  After all, you can have the best intentions in the world, but without good food to back it up, an eco-friendly concept restaurant wouldn’t survive in the cut-throat Melbourne food scene for more than a few months.  And SOS has done more than survive.  Judging by the regularly full tables, the notoriously fickle Melbourne dining public is lapping it up.  So hats off to Mathis for having the foresight to recognise a potential niche market and develop the concept into a successful business.  It certainly can’t hurt if more people are discovering, through SOS, that fine-dining menus can be bereft of steak and still do creative and satisfying food. 

As expected, a meal at SOS is on the pricey side, with entrees averaging 20 bucks a pop and mains in the low 30s.  But, as is also to be expected, the food is well executed: there is no doubt that head chef Richard Hooper knows how to cook a fish.  All the seafood choices on the menu are claimed to be “sustainably produced and ethically harvested”, guided by the Australian Marine Conservation Society’s Australian Sustainable Seafood Guide.  To my admittedly untrained eye, though, there seems some cause for that earlier cynicism.  My copy of the guide proclaims Trevally as an overfished species that should be avoided, yet here it is on the SOS menu.  And a green papaya salad, presumably made with papayas shipped down from Queensland or the Northern Territory, can hardly be claimed to be ‘local produce’. 

Dishes at SOS also contain a few interesting ingredients that rarely grace restaurant menus, like spelt, farro and gluten-free maize.  Again, the cynic in me rears its ugly head to ask if the use of non-hybrid grain varieties is a conscious part of SOS’s sustainable food philosophy, or just an exercise in novelty. 

While its eco-marketing strategy may smell a little like greenwash, SOS still receives a star for effort and a step in the right direction.  It remains to be seen whether its success will spawn imitators and make ‘sustainable dining’ more than just a buzz-phrase for the food fad of the day. Let’s hope so.


  1. Hi I’m in Seans Transient Spaces tute. Are you going to do a food-based documentary website for the final assessment?

  2. ethically harvasted??? what’s that even mean? as in, they do not catch small fish/lobster? im not being sarcastic here, haha, but i really dont know what that refers to. out of curiosity, where is this place by the way?

  3. […] Thaonht ALL about FOODDDD >>ngumngum Wednesday May 16th 2007, 2:46 am Filed under: SOS: is ethical dining the new black? « food for thought […]

  4. Hi Betts. Good question. This is a very simplified answer, but ethically harvested seafood may include seafood that is:

    • A species that is known to be from a healthy population (ie not endangered or currently overfished) and is harvested in the wild using hook and line, pots or nets that do not damage the ocean floor and that are designed to avoid accidentally catching unwanted species (including other fish, dolphins, seals, penguins etc). This is in contrast to “factory trawlers” that drag huge nets, many kilometres in length, across the ocean floor, damaging whole marine ecosystems and taking huge numbers of fish and by-catch.
    • A species that is grown in an aquaculture operation – either freshwater or marine – that operates in an environmentally sensitive manner (that is, they minimise physical damage to existing ecosystems, they minimise pollutants entering surrounding water, and minimise the risk of disease or exotic species escaping into the surrounding wild fish populations.)

    Of course ethically harvested seafood could mean a whole lot of other things too – it could mean that it is locally harvested (to reduce transport), that it is harvested by indigenous fishers using traditional methods, or if it’s imported it could even mean that the people involved in the growing and harvesting were paid fairly for their work (like ‘fair trade’ coffee, for example).

    I think, in the case of SOS, what they really mean is that they try to choose fish that are harvested in an ‘ecologically sustainable’ way. My most recent post deals with this dilemma a little more…

    Oh, and in answer to your other question, SOS is in the Melbourne Central building on the corner of Swanston St and Elizabeth St, on the third floor. A bit of a strange location but it’s actually pretty cool inside, with a great view out over the State Library..

  5. hi pheona – yes, I’m creating a documentary on a group called the Urban Orchard. I’ll put up a post about who they are and what they do very soon. Stay tuned…

  6. […] May 29th, 2007 at 2:59 pm (Uncategorized) SOS: is ethical dining the new black? « food for thought […]

  7. There can be a lot of cynicism around new concepts or responses to issues, and rightly so, but its the only way that change occurs. So Im glad that you don’t get stuck into the restaraunt too much for at least attempting to do what seems like a good idea. I doubt that many people will be fooled into thinking that one meal makes a serious impact on one’s footprint. Customers may take small or big ideas to apply to their own lives, and hopefully more of an open mind to other ‘greenie’ concepts.

    I’m now looking for an excuse to visit SOS and see for myself!

  8. You may be a bit late… News hot off the press is that SOS has just officially closed its doors, less than a year after opening. The restaurant will be “renovated and relaunched”, whatever that means…

  9. G’day Camilla just discovered you blog, love it so far.
    On the SOS thingy. Once there was a restaurant in Melbournes Brunswick St called ‘the seagoing vegetable’which embraced this ‘vegequarian’ concept years ago. It preceded SOS by about 12 years.

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