Bills Sydney has demonstrated a strong commitment to eco-friendliness. Their take-out containers, cups, and cutlery are biodegradable or use recycled materials. The restaurant is part of a LEED certified building and the building’s design allows for the utilization for natural lighting and controlled use of their LED lighting. Their food is health and energy conscious, and they continually work to improve their product mix to increase sourcing of local produce and proteins.
Bill Granger is a busy guy. The Australian founder and owner of an international family of restaurants—one of which is bills sydney, open since 2014 in Waikīkī—is frequently off-island, tending to his projects in Japan, Korea, the United Kingdom and Australia. On top of this, Granger has published 11 cookbooks, has five TV series and, in addition to developing the food and design concepts for his 11 restaurants, he’s a food writer in Australia and the UK.
So, while we know a lot about Granger—like how he started his first restaurant, “bills,” in Darlinghurst, Sydney in 1993 at the age of 24 after quitting art school—there are a lot of things we don’t know, and not a lot of time to get answers. We know that bills met with success as a laid-back local brunch place. We know that this led to expansion, with Granger going international in 2008, opening the first of several restaurants in Japan and, in 2011, opening a London restaurant called Granger & Co.
Granger has a knack for simplicity. His food is notable as an instance of understated fusion cuisine; his dishes often feel classic, clean and balanced, despite the tendency toward chaos and heavy-handedness that characterizes exuberant attempts at mashing diverse food traditions together. While this is a welcome quality on the brunch table, it doesn’t tell the story of the man in his complexity. And it doesn’t help us explain the international appeal of his brand. Granger’s customers are, after all, diners in urban neighborhoods of the developed world—they’ve got choices. They’ve seen ricotta pancakes before. So what gives?
To begin our inquiry, let’s consider this: when asked, Granger says his favorite Hawai‘i food is “a toss up between kim chee fried rice and poke,” which is no surprise. These two items show up on the bills Waikīkī menu like the accents in a thoughtful color scheme, reminding us that we’re in Hawai‘i (or at least trying to be). Granger’s take on kim chee fried rice seems part paella, though, featuring crab and chorizo. It’s refreshingly garnished with cilantro, cucumber, and curls of paper-thin omelette strips, Korean-style. It’s also made with brown rice, which comes off as down to earth and sensible.
Now, kimchee fried rice has always been tasty. But who knew your go-to comfort food / leftovers solution could be so classy? And therein lies a part of the Granger mystique. He gives you spice and originality made universally palatable; he rehabilitates old standbys with effortless and culturally savvy flair.
“I am lucky in my work that I get to travel the world—Hawai‘i, London, Tokyo, Seoul and Sydney give me most of my inspiration via their food, fashion, culture and their both natural and built environments,” says Granger. “Aside from that, I am lucky enough to travel to places other than the cities in which I have restaurants, and they are also a huge source of inspiration for me.”
Of course, the appeal of Granger’s food has a lot to do with the setting it’s presented in. Shoveling fried rice in a hole-in-the-wall lit by fluorescent bulbs is a bit different from casually spooning bites beneath a vaulted ceiling in a skylit room steps from Waikīkī beach—which is the ethos of bills Sydney Waikīkī. Just as Granger acknowledges the importance of the affective environments of the places from which he draws inspiration, he puts emphasis on the role of the spaces he creates with his restaurants.
Granger explains, “I am very heavily involved in the architecture and design. I see the restaurants like an extension of my home, and treat them as such. I want my customers to feel like the restaurants are an extension of their home, a ‘third space,’ not home, not work, but somewhere else they feel very comfortable.”
If you hang out with any design or urban planning junkies, you’ll recognize the term “third space.” As Granger aptly describes, venues that qualify as third spaces are places like cafes, barbershops, bars, parks, or even bookstores. They might also be called public space, and some have theorized their importance for the functioning of democracy. They are places, in short, where people can hang around, talk to people they know, and not worry about being told to buy something or keep moving.
This focus on creating comfortable spaces for people has been with Granger from the beginning. When asked about how he felt opening his first restaurant as a young man, he answers, “It was the classic feeling of following a dream and making a place where all my friends could come and hang out.”
It sounds pretty idyllic—a humble vision of the good life that Granger seems to share with others who are attracted to Hawai‘i, seeing in it some reflection of their own values. Visually, Granger fits the look of a surfer, with messy, highlighted blond hair and an easy smile. When asked, he says he does surf, but humbly adds “not well” and notes that his three daughters have been encouraging him to get back on a board with them at Bondi Beach.
Granger’s look plays a key part in his brand, since images of him and sometimes his family are featured in his cookbooks. The covers usually depict Granger smiling and wearing a light, casual-looking V-neck. Titles include: bills open kitchen, Bills Everyday Asian, Bills Italian Food, and the clear-cut bills food. In fact, across the board, from food to interior decor, from the clean, minimalist bills website to the food styling in his books, Granger maintains a unified aesthetic that cycles through international locales and cuisines like variations on one pleasant theme.
“I like to see how other people express themselves via food,” says Granger. “I really like the way people in Hawai‘i mix up cuisines and influences to create something new and fresh, always with a ray of sunshine—very inspiring for my own food expression!”
Who knows if, located in the middle of Waikīkī, Granger’s Hawai‘i restaurant will function for Hawai‘i residents as the sunny, egalitarian hangout it’s designed to be. But, so long as Granger keeps searching the world for inspiration, he’ll keep us hungry enough to keep coming back and hoping that, somehow, the bills mise en scene has become home.