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Restaurants and Cafés

There have been restaurants in Melbourne at least since the 1850s. Their history has varied according to need, population and legislation. The need was certainly there after gold was discovered in 1851: the population of Melbourne more than trebled in the following three years. In 1850 the first recorded building permit to be granted in Melbourne that year was for an attached kitchen, which may well have been for commercial eating.

The first sixpenny and fourpenny restaurants of the 1850s are credited to an English immigrant, David T. Way. They provided reliable fixed-price meals from the 1850s onwards, at a time when Melbourne's population was growing faster than households and cooks could provide for them. The urban workforce needed food; cheap restaurants provided it.

In his collected papers of 1877-78, the journalist J.S. James, writing as 'the Vagabond', described breakfast with a choice of ten hot meat dishes, bread and butter, and tea or coffee, all for sixpence. There was dinner for the same price, offering a choice of soups, meat dishes and puddings. Sixpenny restaurants were cheap; the quality of the cooking was, as far as can be determined, not high. Dishes included beefsteak pies, roast beef, corned beef and boiled mutton. According to John Freeman's Lights and shadows of Melbourne life (1888), the shilling restaurants also provided alcohol, and there was a separate room for the ladies.

Restaurants in the modern sense - where respectable men and women dine together in public - came relatively late, as they did in England. Throughout the 19th century, hotels were major providers of meals. Gentlemen dined at their clubs. The first restaurants of note were European rather than English. The European - and in particular the French - style dominated international fine dining. The Café de Paris restaurant opened in about 1859, an addition to the Theatre Royal Hotel. The Vienna Café in the Block was decidedly Parisian in style. In the 1890s restaurants of note included the Maison Dorée, La Mascotte, Parer's Crystal Café and the Café Anglais.

Immigration has always been a deciding factor in the nature of Melbourne's restaurants. If the good early restaurants were run by the Swiss and French, the Italians were, in the long run, more important. In the first decades of the 20th century, the two most important restaurants were Fasoli's and Café Denat, both owned by Swiss but of very different styles. Fasoli's was Italian, earthily sophisticated, almost bohemian. Café Denat, which first opened in Flinders Lane in 1893, eventually moved into a wine shop in Exhibition Street. That became a formal restaurant in a grandly Edwardian style, with a French menu. Its motto, on the head of the menu, was Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Mange.

The Café Denat was central to Melbourne's early restaurant industry. Calexte Denat's wife was Mary, née Watson. Her brother Jim married Griselda Panelli, the daughter of an Italian immigrant who provided vegetables for the café. Their son James Calexte Watson owned wine shops, and his son Jimmy established Jimmy Watson's Wine Bar in Lygon Street. Jim and Griselda's daughter Grace married Rinaldo Massoni, who ran the Florentino restaurant. Griselda's sister married Tony Virgona, who had worked as a waiter at Café Denat, and they also ran wine bars, which grew into restaurants.

The 1890s depression had an effect on restaurants, but not for long. The impact of World War I, however, lasted until the 1960s. In 1916 hotels were required to close at six o'clock; the practice of not serving liquor after six lingered even in restaurants, where most were unable to serve liquor at all, and those few that could were obliged to have all glasses off the table by mid-evening. Many diners became accustomed to wine served in cups.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the restaurant scene in Melbourne was dominated by Italians. Allan Wynn - son of Samuel Wynn, who established the Florentino - wrote in The fortunes of Samuel Wynn (1968), a biography of his father, that café society in Melbourne revolved around five establishments: Molina's, Café Latin, the Society, Café Florentino and Mario's. Such were the licensing laws that most of them started as wine shops and the restaurants were added. Mario's, however, grew out of a hotel dining room (which meant it was also licensed to sell beer). The Mario in question was Mario Vigano, whose granddaughters Mietta and Patricia O'Donnell made important contributions to the industry from the early 1970s.

The Society, run by the Codognotto family, grew out of an Italian community club and moved to a site at the top end of Bourke Street in 1932. It remained an Italian (or Italian-style) restaurant until 1998, when its new owners renamed it the Café République - partly in deference to the discussion on an Australian republic and also because the owners were French.

The early restaurant families were close, and their businesses intertwined. Fasoli's friend Rinaldo Massoni had run a restaurant with his friend Camillo Triaca, who later took over the Latin. Massoni took over the Café Denat from Samuel Wynn, who had acquired it from Calexte Denat (Wynn had supplied wine to Denat) and moved its premises to his wine shop in Bourke Street. Its name was changed to reflect the shift in its cooking style from French to Italian. Ernesto Molina was a close friend of Salvatore, the chef at the Florentino.

The Florentino remains an important feature of Melbourne's restaurant industry, although the Latin has since closed. The Florentino remained in Massoni hands for some time, because Rinaldo's son Leon took it over; his contribution to the industry - as owner of the Florentino, the Balzac and Tolarno - was considerable from the 1960s onwards. The Latin was taken over by Bill Marchetti, in whose hands there was some major renovation of the building, but who was also a true custodian of its Italian heritage. The Florentino's Italian image was reinforced by the acquisition of the restaurant by the Grossi family in 1999.

The taste of home is always powerful. Each immigrant group has needed to eat familiar food in unfamiliar surroundings. The Chinese who lived in Little Bourke Street from the 1840s had their own eating houses. The Chung Wah, which took over the Wing Ching cookshop site in Heffernan Lane, was the longest running, from 1914 until the 1970s. Initially Chinese eating houses were essentially for the Chinese community; it was not until the 1950s that non-Chinese Australians were comfortable eating in them.

Other immigrant groups through the later 19th and 20th centuries set up their own cafés and restaurants. Carlton in the 1920s and 1930s had many Jewish cafés as immigrants came from Eastern Europe; when the second wave of Italian immigration occurred in the 1950s and 1960s, Italian cafés usually replaced them. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, Vietnamese restaurants were clustering in Footscray and Richmond, and then in Springvale.

Successive waves of immigration changed the broad picture of Australian eating. Those waves brought individuals whose impact on restaurants was considerable. There were people such as Richard Frank, who established a coffee shop in Little Collins Street in 1951, not long after he had arrived in Melbourne (from Shanghai, after a long journey from Poland). Even more important than his succession of city restaurants - and, lastly, one on the foreshore at Mordialloc - was his role within the Restaurants and Caterers' Association of Victoria, building up an industry association and giving it a voice and a lobbying presence.

The mid-1950s were significant in a number of ways. The 1956 Olympic Games brought a bright sense of internationalism to a city that did not much care for its non-Australian-born population. Italian cafés opened amid the menswear stores at the top of Bourke Street (Pellegrini was the most notable in 1954), and made the 'foreign' more attractive. Hermann Schneider arrived in 1956 as a young Swiss chef who came to cook for the French and Belgian teams during the Melbourne Olympics and stayed on. His rigorous Swiss training and his own sense of how meals should be served were revolutionary in Melbourne. Schneider opened his own restaurant in 1960, taking over a basement supper place called Two Faces and running it with his wife Faye. Schneider's knowledge of wine was extraordinary. After it gained its liquor licence, Two Faces was the focus of the best in wine and food. The number of people who trained there is considerable, and there are as many sommeliers as chefs among them. The 1960s brought 'fine dining' to Melbourne in the form of Fanny's (owned by the Staley family), Maxim's (owned by Vincent Rosales) and Two Faces.

Individuals changed Australian eating in particular ways; changes in legislation made different styles of eating possible. Until the 1960s, there were few restaurants because licences were so difficult to obtain. Late in the 1960s, a loophole provided for the BYO licence, which enabled diners to bring their own liquor. Closing times for licensed premises were extended. The 1960s and early 1970s saw the growth of BYOs, often run by talented amateurs, usually French in style and usually situated in the suburbs adjacent to Central Melbourne. Mietta's (owned by Mario Vigano's granddaughter Mietta O'Donnell and her partner Tony Knox) opened as a BYO in a renovated double-fronted butcher's shop in Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, in 1973. Initially the menu was largely French provincial; later it gained a full liquor licence and moved to city premises in the former Naval and Military Club. Jacques Reymond, Melbourne's most distinguished French-born chef, spent five years at Mietta's before opening his own restaurant.

A couple of years later, Stephanie's (named for its owner and chef Stephanie Alexander) opened as a BYO in Brunswick Street. The restaurant served fixed-price meals, in the French style, and the fixed-price menu remained a feature of Stephanie's even after it moved into an Italianate mansion in Hawthorn. Others who opened significant BYO restaurants in the late 1970s were Jacques and Annie Heraudeau (La Madrague in South Melbourne); Sigmund Jorgensen and Iain Hewitson (who began Clichy in Fitzroy); Paul Lynch (Lynch's), Jean Jacques Lale-Demoz (Jean-Jacques, later Jean-Jacques by the Sea), and Maria and Walter Bourke (Maria and Walter's). By the 1970s there were enough restaurants and enough interest in eating out for newspapers to run weekly restaurant reviews.

A number of Chinese restaurants had opened in the suburbs in the 1960s, and by the 1970s they were clearly no longer only for Chinese. In 1973 Gilbert Lau opened the Flower Drum, often regarded as the best restaurant of any kind in Australia. The real boom for Chinese restaurants, however, was in the 1980s, partly because of the growing popularity of Asia as a holiday destination for Australians, the increasing political ease of Australia with Asia that began in the 1970s, and increased Hong Kong Chinese investment in Melbourne by the late 1980s. Such events as the Chinese Food Festival (later the Asian Food Festival), initially run by cooking writer and teacher Elizabeth Chong, made Chinese restaurants more accessible (special dishes and menus were offered for the duration of the festival, as they were in the Hong Kong Food Festival) and attracted larger crowds. By the late 1980s Chinese restaurants were so much a part of the mainstream that suburban restaurants were of the standard (and often matched the prices) of their Chinatown counterparts.

In 1988 the government accepted the recommendations of the Niewenhuysen report on liquor licensing laws, making it far easier for restaurants to obtain liquor licences, and permitting them to serve drinks without food in designated bar areas. The changes paved the way for a new generation of smart cafés, many of which are very like the early wine bars.

In the 1990s the trend moved firmly towards Italian eating of a more sophisticated nature rather than the casalinga style that had prevailed for about 40 years. It coincided with the emergence of Italian pre-eminence in style and fashion, and with growing interest in the Mediterranean diet, the best gastronomic representation of which was regarded as Italian. Ronnie Di Stasio led the way with a vast bar and ristorante called Rosati, which seated about 500 in Flinders Lane premises; he moved to his own smaller restaurant (Café Di Stasio) at a time when the only other 'respectable' restaurant in Fitzroy Street, St Kilda, was Tolarno (established by Georges and Mirka Mora, then run by Leon Massoni and later by Iain Hewitson).

The trend has also been to less formal dining, and to a less clear division between formal restaurants and casual cafés. Fixed-price menus scarcely exist, except for lunch specials and formal degustation menus. By the late 1990s restaurateurs such as Stephanie Alexander, Walter Bourke and Hermann Schneider, who made their names in grand restaurants, were running wine bar-cum-café-cum-restaurants; even Philippe Mouchel, who came to Australia to head up the relatively short-lived Paul Bocuse restaurant in the Melbourne Central shopping complex, went to take charge of a restaurant and wine bar, and later to a brasserie at Crown. The shift from very formal restaurants, however, did not always mean a diminution in cooking skills or food quality.

At the start of the 21st century, the unquestionable trend is to eating out, with an increasing number of people eating an increasing number of meals outside their own homes. What Melbourne provides is a remarkable range of eating and drinking styles over a very wide price range.

Rita Erlich