Restoration ecology is a young academic field, but one with enough history to judge it against past and current expectations of the science's potential. The practice of ecological restoration has been identified as providing ideal experimental settings for tests of ecological theory; restoration was to be the ‘acid test’ of our ecological understanding. Over the past decade, restoration science has gained a strong academic foothold, addressing problems faced by restoration practitioners, bringing new focus to existing ecological theory and fostering a handful of novel ecological ideas. In particular, recent advances in plant community ecology have been strongly linked with issues in ecological restoration. Evolving models of succession, assembly and state-transition are at the heart of both community ecology and ecological restoration. Recent research on seed and recruitment limitation, soil processes, and diversity–function relationships also share strong links to restoration. Further opportunities may lie ahead in the ecology of plant ontogeny, and on the effects of contingency, such as year effects and priority effects. Ecology may inform current restoration practice, but there is considerable room for greater integration between academic scientists and restoration practitioners.