Saturday, June 27, 2009

Crisis what crisis?

I am an oddity in the Melbourne food blogging community. I rarely do high end, big name dining and I have what some would consider an abnormal penchant for beancurd. But after a frantic couple of weeks of eating out - all I want for dinner is tofu and vegetables, at home on a Saturday night.

The SE’s mother and uncle were in town recently from Sydney. As we trailed from breakfast to lunch to dinner in what felt like an endless haze of eating (and occasionally drinking) they’d keep saying “There’s no recession here!” followed by, “Do people do anything else in Melbourne other than eating?”.

While Sydney has its share of noteworthy restaurants, I’ve always found it hard to find mid-range, good value dinning in that town. A taxi driver once said that in Sydney people eat out less frequently but spend more. Perhaps that explains it, in Melbourne we want to eat out often but demand a decent bang for our buck whether it is a work night dinner at the local, or a Big Night.

A piece this week in The Age muses on the conundrum , why are so many of Melbourne’s restaurants booked out at a time when 80% of Australians say they are eating out less? The other weekend we slipped into Bistro Flor at 6.30, early on a Sunday evening. Fortunately we had a booking for even at this hour the place had few spare tables and was certainly at full capacity within a short time of arriving. Everyone appeared to be enjoying a slow meander through the menu. The staff were helpful, without being pushy. We worked our way through 3 delicious courses, a bottle of excellent wine plus a few extra reds by the glass, all for little over $60 a head. This is fine yet unfussy dinning in the shadow of a recession, making its patrons very happy indeed.

We had a weekend late lunch at a packed out Cookie. Prowled Rathdowne Street to find a Sunday brunch, resorting to a third choice of café after finding the first two full up. I snuck a midweek catch up with a friend at Movida Next Door to grab the last pair of barstools at 5.45 pm, watching all the hopefuls arriving after us being turned away. At an old favourite, De Los Santos, they were still taking walk ins on a Saturday night but the place was close to capacity, with a good turn over of tables. I enjoyed one of my best meals there ever, with a great batch of specials, two to three courses each plus alcohol for around $50 a head.

On the other side, I fortunately missed a cheap but decidedly not cheerful meal at an Italian chain pronounced the “worst pasta ever” by all three (you think we would have ended up eating there if I’d been around?). As for our local stand by, The Kent Hotel, our long serving waitress seemed unusually frazzled, mentioning the amount of complaints she’d been receiving from regulars as budgets got tightened. The food that had previously ranged from good to very good - was spectacularly unexciting. Not bad exactly, just didn’t compare favourably with all the other similarly priced meals of the week. In its current incarnation I think it would still stand out as a great neighbourhood eatery in most Sydney suburbs but Melbournians are decidedly fussier.

I have vague memories of big name Melbourne restaurants that I could never afford to eat in, closing in the early nineties. For someone on my budget it was a strangely positive turn of events, heralding a new era in better quality, mid-range dining. I suspect as prices and expectations have risen in the recent boom, a little pruning may not be a bad thing. Awful for the industry, yes, I’m sorry if my words sound flippant. But for the punters, it just ups the ante.

And as for the cheap eats – couldn’t get a table at The Abyssinian on the weekend, so its not just Cutler & Co or Movida as The Age had implied. Good food that is priced appropriately will continue to thrive in Melbourne but those whose food, staff or prices don’t meet expectations (or I’m guessing most of the restaurants at Crown), its going to be tough.

In the meantime, simple home cooking will never go out of style. The more great food I eat out, the greater I crave “clean food” – steamed vegetables, legumes and brown rice.

More recipes here soon - I promise!

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Anonymous Esz said...

Interesting musings :) I think it's great we've got so many good mid-range restaurants here in Melbourne.

If it's not costing you too much then eating out is a good way to treat yourself during hard economic times. Personally - when times get tough, eating out with friends or coffee and sharing a slice of cake is one of the last things to drop off the budget. I can cut down on shopping but I wouldn't want to give up eating out.

5:15 pm  
Anonymous penny said...

I think the food scene in Melbourne is still really strong. It is still a wait to get a breakfast table at St. Ali and Birdman Eating. In times like this, you will think that approx. $17 for breakfast will be a turn off. Not so it seems.

9:58 pm  
Blogger Johanna said...

I agree with Esz that in times of tightening the budget, eating well is a nice luxury that is much cheaper than a car, holiday or house! Especially when we have places like Hellenic Republic to eat out at

6:53 pm  

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