As early as the 1790s, it was possible to dine well in New South Wales. James Larra’s inn, the Mason’s Arms, boasted a French cook, with food served on the finest silver plate. As was common at the time, the dining room was largely for the benefit of guests staying at the inn. It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that stand-alone restaurants began to appear – establishments (like M. Cheval’s Café Restaurant) that were more up-market than the chophouses that preceded them.
Even in the 1840s, notable Sydney restaurants advertised “Gentlemen accommodated with board and lodging on reasonable terms”. One such was Harden’s Restaurant and Commercial Dining Room in Lower George Street. (This one appeals to me in particular, since Harden is my husband’s surname. Was the proprietor, James, a long-lost ancestor?)
James Harden had no truck with fancified food. Despite having “engaged a first rate cook and spared no expense in setting up his New House” he sought to reassure potential patrons that he would not be serving any of that foreign muck:
J. Harden will not profess to supply French or Italian dishes, so much sought for by the Epicure, but shall conduct his establishment on the old English principle, of supplying a good Rump Steak, or Mutton Chop, so that those friends who favor him with a visit, may fancy themselves in the Mother country. Joints, soups, and ready-made dishes, at any hour of the day.
James was clearly scornful of his competition, Messrs. Henin and Bourdon, who also advertised their French restaurant in 1842. Having taken over the Noah’s Ark Tavern in Pitt Street, they begged “most respectfully to inform their friends, and the public in general” that they would have a variety of French and Italian dishes constantly on hand “for Luncheons, Dinners, &c. &c.”
Another establishment in Pitt Street considered that plain cooking was more to the taste of the populace. In 1843 Toogood’s Restaurant changed its name to the Shakespere Chop House and secured the services of one Mr Rice, late of the steamers Clonmel and Corsair and the London Tavern, Bishopsgate Street, who “fearlessly challenges competition with any house in the colony in the preparation of his soups and made dishes”.
All these establishments couched their advertising in the most courtly terms. However, Dunsdon’s, in King Street East, took a more dashing approach. They published a rhyme, purportedly written by “a Gentleman” immediately after dining there:
In Sydney no house can with Dunsdon’s compare, For moderate prices, most exquisite fare, And the landlord’s polite, kind, attentive care. Apicus himself would deem it a treat To taste Dunsdon’s soups, fish, poultry, and meat. His prime roast and boil’d, rich pies and rare stews Are equall’d alone by his soups and ragouts. Fowls, ducks, turkeys, geese, are deliciously dress’d, And his curries possess the true Indian zest; Whilst choice Yorkshire hams are so temptingly nice That e’en after dinner you relish a slice. The Turtle! by heavens, Ude* never was able To place such tureens on her Majesty’s table. When you enter, the landlord obsequiously stands Bowing, hands you the carte, and requests your commands; Then o’er the long list your glance rapidly flies, Of soups, hashes, curries, ragouts, puddings, pies, Geese, fowls, turkeys, ducks, beef, pork, mutton, veal, Salmon, whiting, stew’d oysters, bream, collar’d eel – Whatever you choose – only just hint your wish Smoking hot in an instant is serv’d up your dish. And when on his dainties you’ve feasted, at will, A mere trifle discharges the landlord’s small bill. Success, then, to Dunsdon! and long may he live Such sumptuous repasts at such cheap rates to give.
Fast forward ten years and it seems that Sydney was more ready to embrace the refinement of French cooking. M. Timothie Cheval, in partnership with M. Poelman, opened his Café Restaurant in George Street. There were two adjoining premises: a café serving café noir and café au lait and “the various kinds of American drinks now so much in vogue”; and the restaurant proper.
In 1854 the Empire rhapsodised about the new level of sophistication the Café Restaurant brought to Sydney:
Those of our readers who have been in Paris doubtless entertain a tender reminiscence of the splendid Cafes of the Palais Royal and the Boulevards. Twelve months ago it would have seemed a most absurd notion that anything approaching them could have been established at the antipodes, but we can inform our readers that an enterprising Frenchman has for some time past been devoting his talents to the enlightenment of the inhabitants of this benighted city, in the mysteries of the cuisine à la Francaise.
As might be expected, the greatest success has attended his efforts. Palates that for years had wasted their discriminating powers upon tough beef and tasteless mutton, have under his scientific tuition become awakened to a sense of the opportunities they have so ruthlessly thrown away. The apothogem which has been so painfully true in Sydney, “that God sends meat, but the devil sends cooks”, may now be evaded, and those who have a taste for the higher branches of the “excellent art” of cookery may have it gratified at the Cafe Restaurant at a reasonable charge.
We are very far from wishing to attach too much importance to the simply sensual enjoyment of a good dinner, but we believe that a great amount of domestic comfort and an immense economy of the food of the people, would be effected if the preparation of that food were properly attended to. It is positively distressing to think of the quantity of most nutritious food that is daily wasted in the city for want of culinary knowledge. There is no doubt but the heat of the climate is one great cause; but we are sure that a French community would live far more luxuriously upon one-half of the animal food that is consumed here. This is not a matter to be dismissed with a smile, it is a subject of the gravest importance. But revenant á nos moutons.’ We do not say that to dine at the French Cafe will teach our citizens how to cook, but it may serve to show them a more wholesome, a more economical, and a more luxurious way of living.
In 1855, the Café Restaurant procured supplies of ice, shipped from North American lakes. The bar was then able to serve American iced drinks: sherry cobbler, claret sangaree, eggnogs, cocktails, mint julep and badminton**, along with water ices and ice cream.
Fine dining in Australia remained primarily in the French style for the next century. Through the “belle epoque” around the turn of the 20th century, French restaurants set the standard. Banquet menus for grand occasions were usually rendered in French. Even when repressive liquor laws were passed during WWI, those few grand dining rooms that lingered on generally served at least some French dishes. It took successive waves of immigration and a new view of the world in the 1960s to transform the culinary scene in Australia.
*Louis Eustache Ude, was the chef at Crockford’s, the fashionable gentlemen’s gambling and eating club in St James’s Street, London and author of The French Cook (1813)
**The Badminton (or Badminton Cup) is a combination of cucumber, lime, and mint, along with a healthy dose of gin.