Friday, 19 December 2008

A longish history of Perth's dining out scene

From giblet soup and tipsy pudding to rollerskating waiters and mayo made with condensed milk, Perth’s dining-out scene has gone through a fascinating evolution.

In 1935, you could buy a round of brain and nut sandwiches at Soldiers Sandwich Supply on St Georges Terrace for threppence.

Or, if this didn’t quite take your fancy, you could nip around the corner to Hay Street where, in that same year, Reno’s cafe was offering fricaséed lamb chops and green peas for the grand old sum of one and six; tuppence extra if you wanted home-made chutney.

Given that Perth’s earliest European settlers were British, inevitably it was traditional pommy fare that found its way into our earliest public dining rooms.

Not that there was one hell of a lot of dining out happening back when Perth was declared a township in 1829. It was all most people could do to feed themselves, let alone anyone else.

But by the late 1800s, there was at least a little bit of dining out happening in the city, and three of Perth’s fancier hotels – The Palace, The Esplanade and The Adelphi (later to become The Parmelia Hilton) - had a reputation for their “fine cuisine and silver service”.

If you were a member of the Chamber of Commerce or someone high up in politics, you got invited to the occasional shindig. Otherwise, you ate at home.
So, what were people eating back then? Well, giblets were kind of big, as were oysters, boiled chook and all the usual olde-worlde offal delicacies – ox tongue, calves head, that sort of thing.

Perth’s Newest Australians were also very much into their meat. They ate it fricaséed, they ate it boiled, they ate it minced. Mostly, though, they ate it roasted, and always – and I do mean always – with potatoes.

Not that everyone was ecstatic about Perth’s hotel dining-out scene. In 1906, Royal Consul Leopoldo Zunini came to WA to establish an Italian Consulate and reported back to his countrymen that:

“The menu is almost always limited to roast beef, drowned in a black, evil-smelling sauce...the helpings...are usually spread with an indefinable, whitish, viscous substance which resembles remarkably the paste used by bootmakers to stick the soles of shoes; I presume it has the same flavour. All this is washed down with tea or coffee (which means chicory). Don’t even mention fruit.”

Even by 1935, just nine businesses were listed under the “cafes, restaurants and dining rooms” section of the Perth phone book, most of them English-style tea rooms serving sandwiches, cakes and tea in thick-rimmed cups.

Down on Barrack Street in the city, a couple of places run by Greek and Italian migrants offered fish and chips or steak and eggs, but that was about it.

But change was a-coming, and how. On 6 January 1939, entrepreneur Bernie Hardwick opened a little stall selling fresh seafood down on Mounts Bay Road. For a community starved – quite literally – of places to eat out, Bernie’s was a godsend. Soon, his little lantern and kero stove were a Perth landmark.

“Dad spent his entire working life there, on the exact site where The Mount Hospital now stands,” says Bernie’s son, Mal Hardwick.

When American servicemen came to town in the early 1940s, Bernie saw an opportunity. “Dad erected tents and sold steak, bread rolls and all the trimmings and people would cook their own, “ says Mal. “So Bernie’s was Perth’s very first cook-your-own-steak restaurant.”

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Australians continued their love affair with meat. In 1941, Perth’s King Edward Hotel was offering “roasts of turkey, goose, chicken, duck, beef sirloin, lamb, pork and suckling pig” on its Christmas menu. One wonders where they found room for the guests.

The first Soho coffee bar opened in London in 1952. Two years later, Melbourne got its first espresso cafe. Not long after, Perth followed suit and took its first tentative steps towards the cosmopolitan cafe culture we enjoy today.

These continental-inspired dens of iniquity, which stayed open until the wee small hours, and where folk occasionally put – gasp – booze in their coffee, were frowned upon by the community’s more straightlaced members.

Meanwhile, WA’s ethnic migrant community was busily swelling, mostly as a result of Italians, who settled in Perth after the Goldrush.

Many of these migrants were fishermen and used Fremantle as their base. By the mid-1950s, two Italian cafes, The Capri and The Roma, had opened in the port town, both offering fare never seen before in Perth; chicken and spaghetti, scallopini, osso bucco.

Mayor of Fremantle Peter Tagliaferri has fond memories of both restaurants.
“The Capri opened just before the Roma, which was the fancier of the two places,” he says. “The Capri was more for migrant get togethers.”

Peter, whose father used to co-own The Capri, says the restaurant was very much a part of the community.

“On Saturdays, when Fremantle closed at one o’clock, they’d all come in, the bootmaker, the tailor, and we’d sit around talking about the football, this and that. People joined your table even when you didnt know them. I loved the sense of community you got there.”

Nella and Frank Abrugiato ran the Roma from when it opened in 1954 until Frank’s death in 2000. Nella and her children continued on, but she found the going pretty tough without Frank. She closed the Roma’s doors in 2006.

“Now that it’s gone, what I miss most are the customers,” says Nella. “They used to come in and hug you and kiss you. They were such beautiful people. The women used to get all dressed up.”

In the 1960s, Perth residents discovered overseas travel and began to explore further afield, embracing new cultures and becoming interested in a wider range of cuisines.
“Quench your thirst with dripping fruits and shivering drinks served by broad-shouldered Fijians,” read a newspaper advertisement from the then BOAC.

Northbridge, too, was evolving, and had become an enclave of Italian and other ethnic eateries and coffee shops. To go to Northbridge – or “north of the line” as it used to be called – was considered very daring indeed by members of Perth’s fairly straightlaced community.

By 1971, I Dream of Jeannie was showing on Channel Nine and Ansett could fly you from Perth to Sydney return for $121. Culottes and baby doll smocks were all the rage and at Liquor Barons you could buy a half-gallon of sherry for the grand sum of $1.50.

Western Australia’s interest in all things culinary was growing, too. In his autobiography, The Voice of the Great South, Eoin Cameron, who hosts ABC radio’s morning programme, remembers getting the 1970 version of The Australian Women’s Weekly Cookbook as a wedding present.

“Every self-repspecting cook of the seventies mastered the pepper steak, not to mention chilli con carne, kofta curry and savoury meatloaf. And what would we have done without veal?...weiner schnitzel, veal parmesan, dutch veal croquettes, veal marengo, veal cordon bleu, veal and mushroom ragout....the choices were mind boggling.”

On 2 August 1970, The Sunday Times published its very first Night Owl column, written by Bill Thompson. At the time, there were just 30 restaurants in Perth. If you wanted glam, you went to Luis in the city, or to Perth’s one and only oceanside restaurant, the Seacrest in Cottesloe.

The State’s mining boom saw Chinese restaurateurs from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane move to WA. In the early 1960s, there had been just two Chinese restaurants. By the mid-70s, according to Perth’s Chung Wah Association, this number had grown to nearly 200.

Jack Lau opened the Swan Lake restaurant in Floreat in 1979. A few years later, he moved to Cottesloe and opened the Jade Court. He’s still there.

In those boom years, says Lau, the Jade Court was incredibly busy. “We were fully booked three or four weeks in advance. We’d turn over a table two even three times a night.”

Mind you, back then every restaurant in Perth was busy, says Lau. “You’d go to the Sunday buffet at a hotel in the city or to the Parmelia Hilton’s Garden Restaurant and everywhere was full.”

It was the days of boom or bust, of flashy entrepreneurs and expense account lunches which merged into dinner. At Luis in the city, Perth’s fat cats were ordering Caviar Royale and escargots. At the Hilite 33 revolving restaurant, you could dance to live music every night of the week.

When Aldo and Connie Dichiera opened Julio’s Restaurant in West Perth in 1985, people queued at the door for a seat.

“Back then, no-one seemed to care who paid,” remembers Dichiera. “They’d just toss a coin and stick it on their expense account.”

Perth was clearly enjoying itself. At Bar Bzar in Subiaco, food was served by waiters wearing rollerskates. And at the Bacci Restaurant in Mount Hawthorn, $12.50 bought you six courses of Italian fare with all the house wine you could drink.

Yet by 1982, Bill Thompson was predicting disaster. “Five years uncontrolled growth has reached its day of reckoning,” he trumpeted in an editorial of the time, “with many restaurants on the brink of financial ruin...restaurants in Perth continue to open at an alarming rate...the situation is becoming chaotic...”

Worse was to come. In 1986, the Labor government introduced Fringe Benefits Tax and Perth restaurateurs immediately felt the pinch.

“I estimate we lost around 25% of our revenue as a result of FBT,” says Terry Bright, Executive Director of Restaurant and Catering WA.

Not that it was all bad news. By early 1987, Fremantle was in the throes of Americas Cup fever and, as a result, the al fresco dining scene took off.

Mayor of Perth Peter Nattrass says it took his own city a little longer to embrace the concept of outdoor dining.

“Our health officers used to say we could never have al fresco dining in Perth because of all the flies.”
But the Americas Cup changed all that, says Nattrass.

“We had one red tape opposition after another, but people finally realised how stupid it was, all these international visitors wanting to enjoy our beautiful weather and nowhere to sit outside. Fremantle led the way and Perth was very quick to follow.”

Then, in late 1987, The New York Stock Mark crashed. Suddenly, the big money had gone and Perth’s high flying dining-out scene simply couldn’t sustain itself.Restaurateurs were forced to re-think their marketing strategy.

Enter cafe culture, which took off in the 1990s and is still with us today. Mind you, the noughties have seen a resurgence in the more traditional restaurant.
“I think people are ready to eat properly again,” says Aldo Dichiera, one of a handful of restaurateurs to have ridden the wave of dining-out fashion and survived.

“The cafe scene slowed us down a bit but we’ve made changes to accommodate the public’s desire for lighter, healthier fare, and we’re as busy as ever.”

Tanis and Geoff Gosling opened The Witch’s Cauldron in Subiaco in 1970. They, too, are still going strong and have seen a change in people’s eating habits.

“In the old days, people would order three courses,” says Tanis. “Now everyone’s eating less.”

Today there are around 3,000 restaurants and cafes in Perth, a third offering “modern Australian” fare, 20% serving Chinese and other Asian and just 9% which class themselves as Italian.

According to a recent Roy Morgan survey, fast food is a major player in the dining out stakes, with more people reporting a fast food experience than a meal out in a three month period.

All this goes hand in hand with a community that, increasingly, wants to dine casually. According to Harry Ferrante, President of the Restaurant Catering Industry Association of WA, Perth is following the European trend for more casual places which blur the line between restaurant and cafe.

“It’s all about superfluous rituals which are no longer needed,” he says.
Which, if you ask me, is just a teensy weensy bit sad.
Lobster Thermidore and crepes suzette, anyone?

Other stuff you may not know about Perth's dining-out (and drinking) history:

The six o clock swill
Contrary to popular belief, this State was never subject to the notorious “six o’clock swill”, which came about because hotels were required to close at 6pm. Here in the west, the closing time was always much later; around 9pm.

We did, however, have to contend with “the gallon licence” – a forerunner to the current liquor store licence held by such outlets as Liquorland and Woolies.

Basically, this licence forbade the sale of anything less than one gallon of liquor.
Because of this, it was apparently fairly common back in the early 60s to see a smartly-dressed couple on their way to dine out with a gallon keg of beer tucked under one arm.

Perth remembers
“The ‘40s was the era of the set price dinner. For about a shilling, you’d get soup, a main course, shepherds pie, fish, lamb, something like that, followed by jelly and custard. Sometimes there was a steamed pudding.” Perth resident, Ken Mellet.

Dad’s 1964 stockmarket windfall when I was 10 sparked my first visit to a “proper” restaurant: the Canton in Hay Street. I remember the exotic aromas, the gooey, cornflour-thickened sauces and the wonderfully strange and sticky sweet and sour pork." David Hummerston, restaurant reviewer for The West Australian newspaper between 1988 and 2005.

“In 1969, the Adelphi Steakhouse at the newly-opened Parmelia Hilton Hotel was considered so out there. We cooked our own steak and helped ourselves to the salad bar. I have fond memories of a baked potato beautifully wrapped in alfoil. And of course, we drank claret” Gail Williams, restaurant reviewer for the Sunday Times newspaper.

We first arrived in Perth in 1971 and the immigration people put us up at a hotel in the city. Our first breakfast was cold lamb chops, beetroot slices, fatty bacon and a fried egg with a greasy brown frill around it. The white bread had curled up and long since died. The lumpy gravy they’d poured on top had merged with the juice from the beetroot. My black coffee came with an orange slice in it. When I queried it, the waitress said ‘Well, you have lemon in tea, don’t you?”’ I very nearly went back to Europe then and there.” Ian Parmenter, Festival director, Tasting Australia.

“Back in the mid 70s when I ran the Matilda Bay restaurant, we wouldn’t dare go into a Saturday night service without six cartons of cold Ben Ean moselle in the fridge.” Graham Bolton, Restaurateur and Chair of the Hospitality Industry Training Council.

“In 1976, my sister’s latest beau took us both to Perth’s first revolving restaurant, King Arthur's Table at the Red Castle motel, built and run by his parents. I remember how the sword Excalibur magically rose and fell in the middle of the fountain outside, the white damask tablecloths, the fine fare. I ate chicken kiev nestled on a potato nest followed by crepes suzettes. I was giddy with pleasure at it all.” Geraldine Mellet, Radio and Television Broadcaster.

“In the heady days of the mid 80s, my family regularly enjoyed Sunday buffet lunches at the Parmelia Hilton’s Terrace Restaurant. I remember the furry gold wallpaper in the loos, learning how to shell prawns...and always getting a crème caramel.” Emma Green, Scoop mag's Editor.

I grew up in Cowaranup and the single biggest moment in my childhood restaurant-going life, quite seriously, was when Kentucky Fried Chicken opened in Bunbury. Mum and dad drove us up there specially. It was an absolutely massive thing for us.” Russell Blaikie, chef, Must Winebar.

Timeline
1899: The Terrace tearooms open in Kings Park. Nine years later, a second tearoom opens, on the site now occupied by Fraser’s restaurant.

1932: ABC Radio transmissions commence in Perth.

1934: Pavlova is invented by chef Herbert Sache at Perth’s Hotel Esplanade.

1935: The Boans Cafeteria opens

1934: Bernie’s opens on Mounts Bay Road

1947: The Capri opens in Fremantle. In 1957, it’s taken over by the Pizzale family, who still own it today.

1954: La Roma cafe opens in Fremantle and is run by the Abrugiato family until it closes in 2006.
1968: WA’s first drink-driving legislation is introduced and diners begin to look closer to home for places to eat out.
1971: The first Hungry Jacks outlet in Australia opens in the Perth suburb of Innaloo.
1977: Nunzio Gumina introduces pavement dining at Papa Luigi’s in South Terrace, thus heralding the beginning of Freo’s Capuccino Strip.
1979: Alain and Lizzie Fabregues open The Loose Box in Sawyers Valley. Nine years later, they move to their current premises.
1982: Perth’s first Macdonalds franchise opens at Cinema City.
1986: Fringe Benefits Tax is introduced.
Jan87: Fremantle hosts the Americas Cup Challenge.
Oct 87: New York stock market crashes.
1988: Random Breath Testing is implemented in WA and Perth diners have even more reason to stay home.
1995: The booze bus is introduced to WA.
1999: WA passes legislation which prohibits smoking in enclosed public places where food is served.

What was big when
1940s: Sweetbreads in aspic, jelly and ice cream, peach melba, roasts, offal, fruit pies.
50s: Angels on horseback, lobster newburg, roasts, plum pudding at anytime of year
60s: Seafood cocktail, crepes suzettes, gammon, chicken and crumbed pineapple, knickerbockerglorys, buffets, cook your own steak, crayfish mornay, candles in chianti bottles on the table, seafood generally.
70s: Dinner parties, Fillet mignon, tournedos, theme nights at restaurants, trout with almonds, chicken liver pate, pavlova, cassata, ceesecake, black forest gateau, 1000 island dressing, duck a lorange, steak diane chocolate mousse, beef wellington, garlic prawns, the womans weekly cookbook. burgundy tablecloths and fresh flowers on the table, fondue,
80s: Chinese restaurants, nouvelle cuisine, chicken a la king, nut sundae, crayfish thermidore, chicken kiev, chateaubriand, Mexican restaurants, croutons in soup, coquilles st jacques, valet parking.
90s: Cafe culture, bruschetta, ceviche, gazpacho, risotto, White Rocks veal, big plates, bigger glasses, white napery and tealights on tables.

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