Raising the Bar at Spice Bar

Image source: Photographer Megan Gill

Life-long foodie Sophie Phipps and husband Luke Duncalf have recently taken the reins at Spice Bar in Mooloolaba – an elevated modern asian fusion restaurant where the epic ocean views come second to the locally-sourced, handcrafted dishes, as Rebecca Jamieson Dwyer discovers.

It’s not often you dine somewhere where every single element of the menu has been made from scratch. But at Spice Bar, it’s a core part of their philosophy – from the paste for the Makhani Goat Curry to the smoked bone oil on their Sashimi – even the individual rice wafers decorating their Leche Flan (a Filipino crème caramel).

When this level of passion and dedication goes into creating every dish, it pays off. At Spice Bar, every meal is a delight for the senses, with a taste unlike anything else you’ve experienced.

“We could buy a pre-made curry paste, and then our neighbour might buy it too, and our dishes would taste the same,” says Executive Chef and Business owner Sophie. “Because we make every single element of our food by hand, you’re not going to get something you could find anywhere else. We also curate our plates to balance the flavours, for example our spice paste for our goat curry is complemented by the flavours of the roti, the hung yoghurt and pickled green paw paw, so you’re getting a perfectly balanced dish.”

As someone who’s worked in fine dining restaurants since her early teens – including a stint as an apprentice at one of the best restaurants in Auckland, and a few years as the owner of an organic vineyard restaurant in northern New Zealand – it’s clear that Sophie lives and breathes all things food.

As Spice Bar’s new owners, Sophie and Luke are excited to have the freedom to elevate the restaurant’s offerings and reclaim the oceanfront dining destination as one of the most exciting in town.

“I wouldn’t call Spice Bar ‘fine dining’ – I call it refined dining,” Sophie says. “What we offer is a little bit unexpected, a little bit unusual. We’re all about providing our customers with an amazing experience.”

The duo understands that creating a warm, welcoming atmosphere is a huge part of that experience, and are building a team of hospitality professionals who are in the industry for the long haul.

“It seems like hospitality is a dying art these days – being a maître d or a waitperson is often viewed as a job for students or holiday workers,” says Luke. “But we take it seriously, and we foster that approach within our team. We want them to take pride in their career, and go home at the end of the day feeling that they’ve really made a difference.”

Another huge part of the Spice Bar philosophy is the ethical treatment of animals – something that Sophie, who grew up on a makeshift animal sanctuary thanks to her nature-loving mother, is incredibly passionate about.

“I was using free-range produce in my restaurant in New Zealand back before it was popular,” she says. “As humans, we can be incredibly wasteful and greedy by prioritising saving a couple of dollars over an animal’s life. I would rather pay more money to know that an animal has lived a happy life and hasn’t suffered. Plus the quality and taste is better.”

Much of Spice Bar’s menu can be traced back to the farm, including the finest grass-fed beef from Cape Grim in Tasmania, free range pork from SunValley near Goondiwindi, and sustainably sourced seafood from local suppliers Daniel Street Fish Market.

They also prioritise local ingredients wherever possible, using Sunshine Coast Coffee Roastery beans, Diablo Co Ginger Beer, 10 Toes Brewery and edible flowers from a nearby microgarden.

Luke says that supporting other local businesses just makes sense.

“Choosing to import produce to save money goes against everything communities should be working towards together,” he says. “By buying from local producers, we invest money into the local economy to help others, and in turn they support us. That’s what real community spirit looks like.”

Located at the northern end of the Mooloolaba Esplanade with expansive views of the ever-changing sea, Spice Bar has a stylish, atmospheric interior that makes it the perfect backdrop for a casual drink, special dinner or romantic evening: think red accents, wooden tables, flickering candles and a well-stocked bar.

There is also a function space featuring a specially-commissioned mural from local urban artist (and former Hello Sunshine cover artist!) Sarah Sculley and the couple get a thrill every time a customer chooses to celebrate an important life milestone at Spice Bar.

Special occasion or not, they strive to make every person who visits feel valued and taken care of.

“When people walk through our door we want them to leave everything behind, and just really enjoy the moment,” Luke says. “We aim to envelop them in an experience that feels easy and enjoyable.”

Sophie and Luke have been spicing up the Mooloolaba dining scene for six months now, and have exciting plans to expand and refine their offerings as the business grows. At the heart of it is their love for welcoming people into their space and sharing a piece of themselves through their food.

“We want to individually cater to each person that comes in and make sure they have a great experience with us,” Sophie says. “It’s all about making people feel good!”

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