When salmonella went feral a few years ago at a favorite Turkish restaurant, hospitalising a wardful of unlucky diners, I felt the urge to eat there out of solidarity with the owners but sadly, the health inspectors had put paid to my plans. The joy of returning to a previous favourite restaurant is built entirely on nostalgia. If a restaurant is beloved enough, you can eat an objectively bad meal there and love it, which tends to happen most of the time at Camy Shanghai Dumpling House.
The food at Shanghai Dumpling is not the drawcard as much as the price of the food. When you ask a fan of Camy for their reasons, they inevitably reply “It’s cheap” without much elaboration on the dumplings themselves. They’re filling, greasy and lack subtlety. The pork dumplings taste like pork when steamed and like lardy starch when fried. Even though there has been much conjecture as to the dodginess of their dumplings, there hasn’t been an outbreak of anything deadly there. If there was, I’d still go back.
So from whence does the fierce, nostalgic pang for Camy arise?
You’re not likely to be surprised by anything on the menu except for the prices. Shanghai Dumpling is one of the few places that you can get a sub-$5 plate of dumplings or even get change from $10 when sharing a multitude of plates amongst other Camy cognoscenti.
The furnishings and staff don’t necessarily drive the nostalgia. Since my departure to Cambodia, the decor has morphed from typical cheap Asian to velour banquettes and chairs; glass over the top of wooden tables. I don’t miss it. The tacky art (CopperArt?) remains as does their much-loved policy of hiring Melbourne’s shirtiest front-of-house staff. I assume that the price of the dumplings shows a close correlation to the size of their paychecks. Tea is still self-serve into plastic mugs; the rest of the plateware uniformly melamine. My biggest surprise was that secret menu item: ordering the wonton soups sans-soup, has now slipped into the public domain. And this made me realise why Camy is so loved.
Camy Shanghai Dumpling House is the perfect example of an open secret. Everyone already knows about it but revels in the joy of feeling like they own privileged information. Their alleyway position helps: just hidden enough to make it an unmemorable location; as does the nondescript-ness of the decor, menus and ultimately, food. But the pleasure of being let into the fold, of knowing something that you believe that few others do, never wears off.
See also: Melbourne Gastronome’s I ate at David and Camy’s Shanghai Dumpling and survived (but only just) Facebook group
Location: 25 Tattersalls Lane (Between Little Bourke and Lonsdale), Melbourne CBD