Melbourne’s Oldest Restaurants

Melbourne’s oldest restaurant is Florentino (est.1928), if you count restaurants opened on the same site, serving the same cuisine under the same name. The oldest continuously running restaurant (as far as I could find) is Cuckoo Restaurant in Olinda (est.1958) which took over the site from Quamby (est.1914). Even though they’re important to local cuisine, I’m not counting pubs. The oldest is the Duke of Wellington (est.1853) but it’s unclear if it has had a kitchen for that long.

Can you make generalisations about who will last a quarter of a century in the restaurant business? Is there a recipe for success in Melbourne?

Name yourself Jim and serve any cuisine at all as Jim’s Greek Tavern, Jimmy Watson’s (Italian), Jim Wong (Chinese) all attest. As for location, get in on Lygon Street and serve affordable Italian food, or as close to Parliament House as possible. Public servants obviously like to eat.

As for what to serve, it doesn’t seem to matter a great deal. The quarter century industry survivors run the gamut from some the world’s finest dining to unmitigated shit. There’s not any clear pattern as to what price point or level of service guarantees longevity. What does guarantee it is that they’re almost all family-friendly. If you go to any of them for a weekend lunch, I’d bet there would be more than one high chair. This is a list of restaurants where people went as children and still return as adults.

Here’s the list from the map: all of Melbourne’s restaurants older than 25 years as of today. Huge thanks to eatnik, essjayeff, stickifingers, mysecondhelping and dananikanpour for all the suggestions.

I’m sure that there are a large number missing: almost every suburban fish and chip shop will be 25 years old by now. It also omits chain restaurants. The first McDonalds opened in Melbourne (Glen Waverly) in 1973 and by 1982, there were 33. In the same year, there were 35 Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets. Burger King set foot in town in 1986. Also a word of caution about the opening years: they’re not necessarily exact. Quite a few were gleaned from reviews where they mention that a restaurant has “been open for more than 30 years” without mentioning an exact date.

If you know of any missing, comment below.

Name
Established
Cuisine
Abla's1979
Alasya Restaurant1978Lebanese
Bedi's Indian Restaurant1980Indian
Brunetti - Carlton1985Italian
Cafe Di Stasio1989Italian
Caffe e Cucina1988Italian
Casa Del Gelato1980Italian
Cuckoo Restaurant1958German
Donnini's Pasta1981Italian
Domenico's Pizza1968Italian
Dragon Boat Restaurant1986Chinese
Dunyazad Lebanese RestaurantLebanese
Flower Drum Restaurant1975Chinese
France-Soir1986French
Gaylord Indian Restaurant1985Indian
Golden Orchids Malaysian Restaurant1979Malaysian
Grossi Florentino1928Italian
Hanabishi Japanese Restaurant1988Japanese
Il Gambero1970Italian
Izakaya Chuji1989Japanese
Jim Wong Restaurant1968Chinese
Jimmy Watson's Wine Bar1935Italian
Jim's Greek Tavern1980Greek
Joe's GarageItalian
Kunis Japanese Restaurant1977Japanese
La Porchetta Carlton1985Italian
La Spaghettata Restaurant1984Italian
Lobster Cave1987Seafood
MariosItalian
Masani Italian Restaurant1984Italian
Paris Go BistroFrench
Patee Thai - Fitzroy1983Thai
Pellegrini's Espresso Bar1954Italian
Penang Coffee House1976Malaysian
Poon'sChinese
Ricardo's TrattoriaItalian
Shakahari Vegetarian Restaurant1972Vegetarian
Shark Fin Inn City1980Chinese
Spaghetti TreeItalian
Stokehouse1989Modern Australian
Stuzzichino Caffe Bar Spuntini1987Italian
Sukhothai Restaurant1989Thai
Supper Inn Chinese RestaurantChinese
Tandoori Den Camberwell1981Indian
Isthmus of Kra1989Thai
The Old Paper Shop DeliCaf‚
The Olive Tree1971Italian
The Waiters Club1947Italian
THY THY RestaurantVietnamese
TiamoItalian
Toto's Pizza House1961Italian
University Cafe1953Italian
Vlado's Charcoal Grill1964Steak
Warung Agus1989Indonesian
Geppetto Trattoria1981Italian
Eastern Bell1989Chinese

Your funds buy my food security.

The Jonas family grows pork that makes most other pork taste like that foamy pizza topping ham-substitute. If you’ve ever planned to cut down on how much meat you eat and then reward yourself with the best, this is it. You’ll remember where you were the first time that you ate it. Tammi Jonas is a friend, so that completely colours my view of their success and probably, the bacon.

But to paraphrase Amartya Sen, there’s no such thing as an apolitical food problem, and the problem that they’re solving agrees with my politics.

Maybe it’s me getting older, but I’ve started thinking more about food in the long term rather than day-to-day eating. Guaranteeing the future supply of the food that I want to eat is just as important as eating it in the short term. Part of that problem is how to put a relatively small amount of capital upfront to ensure that it happens. As much as I can do that at my local butchers or supermarket with what I buy in the short term, there is no transparency of supply.

So here’s a rare chance to support mine and your own food security. The Jonas’s have a crowdfunding campaign up at Pozible for a small-scale boning room and refrigeration. Funders are rewarded, quite literally, with pork.

I hope that it is the start of something much bigger.

Deactivating almonds: foodie backlash and the commitment to food

Overcommitted.

If you’ve been on Twitter over the past week in Australia, the slightly bewildering hashtag #activatedalmonds has been in ascendency. Pete Evans, chef, reality television judge and corporate spokesperson for Weight Watchers and Sumo Salad was eviscerated 140 characters at a time over a weekend newspaper fluff piece that documented his day of eating:

7am: Two glasses of alkalised water with apple cider vinegar, then a smoothie of alkalised water, organic spirulina, activated almonds, maca, blueberries, stevia, coconut keffir and two organic, free-range eggs.

8.30am: Sprouted millet, sorghum, chia and buckwheat bread with liver pate, avocado, cultured vegetables plus ginger and liquorice root tea.

12.30pm: Fresh fish, sauteed kale and broccoli, spinach and avocado salad, cultured vegies.

3pm: Activated almonds, coconut chips, cacao nibs, plus green tea.

6.30pm: Emu meatballs, sauteed vegetables, cultured vegetables plus a cup of ginger and liquorice root tea.

It’s the sort of empty listicle that a PR rep answers on behalf of the talent by email; a gaily-colored box of text to further brighten the weekend’s non-news. Something a bot might write on your behalf. They’re hardly the most hard-hitting or meme-worthy pieces of newsprint. Collective schadenfreude is Twitter’s raison d’etre and on this occasion, it could taste the slight alkalinity of blood. Why did this article in particular spawn a virulent response?

Search any newspaper website for the word “superfood” and you’ll get a similar bucket of nutritionism snakeoil. Pete alone is not spearheading an unforeseen interest in spirulina or the weird hubris of passing off food as nothing more than a nutrient delivery system.

Evan’s sample menu is aimed at any number of masters: his corporate sponsors, his reality television employers or the subscribers of the Sunday Age. It plays to the obsessions of desperate, rich dieters and smacks of a strange corporate fealty. It’s not the daily diet of a man who eats for the unambiguous pleasure of doing so which is what the public is lead to believe about chefs.

Celebrity chefs are strange advocates for good eating. When commercial imperative clashes with chef’s previous personal tastes and ethics, commerce wins every time. Here’s an ad for a cheap pilsener starring Ferran Adria. Here’s organic chicken aficionado Jamie Oliver making industrial chicken sandwiches for fun and profit. Pete’s transgressions aren’t noteworthy alongside his international counterparts.

There is something about the deep commitment to his routine that is unnerving. He didn’t crack at 3:00pm and eat a pastry from the catering table. No midnight drive-thru at KFC, eating powdered mash and gravy one-handed on the drive home, crying into the empty “Family” sized bucket on the couch. This was the first image that came into my head when I thought of Pete Evans’ diet. I barely know who the man is and expected the worst.

When we see the growing “backlash” against foodies, it seems to be against this deep commitment. I hate the term “foodie” because it has no real definition and seems to encapsulate any particular interest in food from haute cuisine to ethical eating. You can as easily be labelled a foodie if you can comfortably follow a cupcake recipe or you’ve taken a decade to write the world’s definitive history of cupcakes. There’s no shortage of nuanced nouns to pigeonhole people who eat. But foodie backlash it is, not gourmet backlash or glutton backlash; an all-encompassing counterattack on the commitment to food.

Instagramming your meal to death.

Steve Cumper, Australia’s best food blogging chef, recently noted the new zealotry for “real food”, the modern hipness for home-growing everything and being the person who shoots, skins (and photographs) the rabbit pre-terrine.

This real food is apparently unencumbered by status, it is home grown, it is foraged, its is hunted, it is gleaned, it is not, as Lance Armstrong put it, about the bike, or in this case, not about the Kodak moment.

This is honest, unprocessed, un-wanky, un-restauranty, un-gather your photographer mates around you to capture the ad hoc picnic in the dis-used cannery on the wharf kinda food. This is the kinda food that doesn’t need embellishments, is SO un-gourmet, shrugs off pretensions and artifice and reveals itself to a few hip but grounded uber-cools who operate high in the coolosphere where the air, I’m told, is crisper.

The trouble is: Why are people like me hearing about it all the time?

I feel smug when I publish what I grow in my garden, mostly because growing up outside the city, planting a vegetable garden was unremarkable and the least noteworthy of domestic pursuits. Hopping the back fence with a .22 to shoot dinner was just something that I thought most kids did even if it wasn’t the case. It didn’t seem to mark any deep commitment to food because it was common amongst neighbours.

And the Internet didn’t exist.

The backlash isn’t so much about the commitment but the conspicuousness of people’s commitment to food whether it is Pete Evan’s voluntary deprivation or hearing about real food all the time from Facebook updates and blow-by-blow degustations captured on Instagram. When I hear that people want out of Facebook, I wonder how boring their collected acquaintances are and I’m certain what they had for dinner is a large part of it. Where previous backlashes against foodies was more about the excesses of gourmets, it is now all-encompassing because our friends don’t know when to stop; to leave the unremarkable experiences unremarked and save the best for conversation.

The end of food reviewing

I’ve just read all 94 reviews of Melbourne restaurant Chin Chin on Urbanspoon. Few are longer than a hundred words and a handful of photos, so you don’t come away feeling any great sense of achievement. If I was to then describe Australian restaurant review bloggers in a single word, it would be “compliant”. In general, restaurateurs have nothing to fear from Australian food bloggers apart from the risk of a damp backside from the prodigious arse licking.

There aren’t many barbed tongues.

When I started blogging, it was very much about having and fostering an alternative voice. For me, an alternative to the lazy, parachute travel journalism deployed in Cambodia and the sincere but ill-informed backpacker blogs that hopped from the Killing Fields to orphanage visit to “happy” pizza. The difference between the blogs that I liked and the ones that I avoided (or mocked) marked the difference between food criticism and food reviewing. Food criticism links what happens on the plate to the rest of the world, or at least, to the rest of the writer’s world. Food reviews just look at the plate in front of them and then move onto the next one; an endless stream of disconnected meals to be consumed in any order.

In the age of ubiquitous social networks and historically high patronage of restaurants, one of your friends has already been to somewhere that you want to go and has probably pressed their Like button. Facebook and Twitter provide a vast architecture of personal recommendations that sate any possible peccadillo.

The presses can’t keep up with the constant online feed. By the time a food review hits the newspapers, I’ve seen it on Twitter, discussed it at work and generally had somebody that I know visit the restaurant in person. There is no longer a need for printed food reviews when the ambient noise about them is faster, more trustworthy and tailored to my tastes.

I imagine with the collapse of metropolitan dailies in Australia, we’re going to lose most, if not all food critics. I don’t imagine that any of the food liftouts from Australia’s newspapers are financially viable and who knows if Gina Rinehart likes her food? If you’d like a summary of how this has happened elsewhere, Eater picks over the bones of newsprint food criticism in the US. Newspapers are not the lone bastion of food criticism in Australia but they are more likely than elsewhere to provide it and pay for it. Criticism is more important than ever because there is so little of it.

It seems to suggest that the era of earning a living wage through either food criticism or reviewing is well and truly over and the only financially viable platform is blogging. At least, financially viable for those rare few that can wrangle community management, SEO and sales whilst finding time to eat and write.

Warning to Coles shoppers: ROBOTS TOUCH YOUR FOOD.

You know what the average shopper at Coles Supermarket fears? Robots. Giant robots who touch their food. This secret informs their latest sleight of hand that boasts that their home delivered food is “Hand picked, hand packed and hand delivered”.


Screenshot from http://www.coles.com.au/Shop-Online.aspx/ (full page, 28 June 2012)

This was originally spotted in the wild by Harvest Feast, adorning Coles’ Tasmanian delivery vans.

Coles’ food is however, picked and packed by giant robots at some point in its journey from factory to you. Here’s the video of that happening:

SSI Schaeffer, who installed the systems, are quite proud of their achievements. From their press release:

Automated picking solutions at Coles’ two national distribution centers align with the companywide strategy to deliver store-ready stock more efficiently. Supply Chain Review goes inside the Melbourne facility to inspect the world-class system. At least part of the supply chain transformation of supermarket giant Coles is being handled not by people, but by robots. Automated picking solutions at Coles’ two key national distribution centers (NDCs) in Sydney and Melbourne are, according to the retailer, providing significantly improved store-friendly deliveries while minimizing end-to-end supply chain costs and making warehousing operations safer and more efficient.

(emphasis is mine)

Moreover, almost all of the processed food that goes into Coles’ deliveries was picked and packed by robots (or at least, some automated system) at the original manufacturer. So why the sudden bout of robophobia from one of Australia’s supermarket duopoly?

Welcome to the coopting of handmade. Western luxury is no longer defined by owning perfect objects but by having the time to select pieces that display the tell-tale imperfections of the human hand. It’s what you probably stare longingly at on Pinterest. Just like “artisanal” before it, now well dead and obituarised by The Atlantic, major corporations now battle to appear as if real humans touched their things and by doing so, render the terms meaningless.

I’m no longer certain whether any of these terms are redeemable, but at the very least, we can point out the most egregious of lies.

Sausage sizzle or popup charcuterie?

Photo Credit: Wooster Collective

I worked in a food truck for a few months in 1996. The truck parked at automotive parts swap meets and out the front of the cow pavilion at the Royal Easter Show. I cooked hundreds of frozen hamburgers, industrial soy-beef patties defrosting on the grill for families with matching mullets in the real need of a Cortina alternator. The jam donuts, chips and battered hotdogs in the roiling deep fryer, which by the end of the day tasted indistinct from each other, downed by men who smelled sweet like bovine.

The boss was happy insofar as I wasn’t a junkie and nothing caught fire. They paid cash, daily. It wasn’t the worst of food industry jobs that I’ve been involved in. It wasn’t noble. Apparently any non-addict could do it.

Australia has hundreds of similar food trucks and mobile food businesses from Mr Whippy vans to the sausage sizzles in front of hardware retailers. At the moment, there are nine food vans parked in Melbourne’s CBD alone, as shown on the below map. As far as I can remember, they’re all icecream vendors and donut vans.

There is something deeply amusing about both Sydney and the suburban Melbourne councils considering the need for more food trucks when there is already a well developed ecosystem.

The problem is that it’s not the cool street food ecosystem.

The depressing secret behind street food culture is that it exists because there is nowhere else to eat. In Phnom Penh, a good deal of the street food exists because it is too expensive for the average worker to leave their job and go home for a cheaper meal. Despite the backpacker authenticity myth, the bulk of it is as nasty as it is cheap; good street food is so rare that it is almost a euphemism. In Los Angeles, food trucks, especially the semi-permanent Mexican loncheras, offer an oasis in the food desert for factory workers and locals. If anything, they’re stuff white people like because they’re beacons of actual food in a grove of Olive Gardens or whatever pretend food is served in roadside mass-market chain restaurants. In Kuala Lumpur, street vendors develop symbiotic relationships with a cafe, multiple vendors clinging parasitically to a single coffee shop. In all cases, food trucks and street vendors tend not to compete with existing businesses because there aren’t any other existing businesses nearby. All are the result of local conditions.

Generally that condition is poverty, followed by richer people lionising food that poor people eat.

Australia already has a unique street food culture but it is one that is only celebrated on rare occasions because the rich have no interest in replicating or sampling what poor Westerners eat. The footy frank (PDF). The aforementioned Mr Whippy and his alliterative pseudonyms. The election day sausage sizzle. Preserves and cake stands at church fetes. They’re all temporary but not “pop-up” in the baffling modern parlance. Pop-up is used as obsfucation for expensive or designed or from somewhere else, some place where the poor eat capital-A authentic meals.

The unpopular Australian street foods are also the precursor to building a culture of street food but that hasn’t happened because unlike LA or Phnom Penh in the urban centres in Australia there is no shortage of great, easily accessible meals. There isn’t a footy frank vendor on every corner because good food is straightforward to find. In the absence of Michelin stars, many restaurants are awarded imaginary hats by our food press. There’s not even a shortage of good portable food from upmarket pork belly sandwiches to cheap sushi. Beyond the occasional cone of soft serve or post- donut, there isn’t much of a market for heartier food served streetside when you can get a markedly better meal nearby and somewhere to sit and eat it.

It’s certainly not to denigrate the new wave of Twitter-wielding Roy Choi wannabes around Australia: the food itself serves that purpose. Melbourne’s taco truck’s tacos are almost as good as those that you can get in a shopping mall food court. With any luck, the new trucks and popups might bewilder the rich long enough to lead to new restaurants. There is just no deeper culture to support it forever.


View Food Vans in Melbourne CBD in a larger map