In November 1951, The Age alerted its readers to a crisis in Melbourne’s restaurant industry. “During the past year 20 Melbourne restaurants and cafes, most of them in the city, have closed,” a staff reporter wrote.  “In an unequal fight with rising costs, the proprietors conceded that they had made a dubious investment.” The article pointed to several causes: energy costs, labour shortages and shortages of essential foodstuffs. What’s more, post-WWII price regulation was still in operation, making it more difficult for restaurants to improve their profit margins.

The next year was even worse. “Customers button up,” said The Herald, reporting that in less than 12 months 34 more restaurants had gone out of business.  It was the lucrative lunchtime trade that was drying up. More workers were bringing their lunch from home or picking it up from a sandwich bar. For those who did want a hot meal, counter lunches were a more economical proposition than a sit-down restaurant repast. The disappearing restaurants were being replaced by clothing and homewares stores. Despite this, The Herald said, some 406 eating houses were struggling on in the city.

But despite the downturn, Melbournians continued to dine out through the 1950s. In most cases it wasn’t quite dining as we know it – only a select few Melbourne restaurants were legally able to serve a glass of wine with your meal. Cafe Florentino, in Bourke Street, fortunately possessed a wine license. Another Bourke Street institution, The Society, tried to solve the problem by offering a free glass of wine with meals, but still ended up on the wrong side of the law.

At Hermes Cabaret Restaurant, in South Yarra, alcohol was off the menu. Dinner service finished at 8.30, presumably so patrons could go home and have a drink. The special dish at Hermes was Beef Steak Zingara, described as “tender fillet of steak with ox tongue, ham, mushrooms, truffles, cream sauce and pommes gaufrettes”.  This exotic melange would set you back 13/6d ($1.35). On a weeknight, you could enjoy recorded music, but the Saturday night cabaret, with the Gizi Royka Gypsy Trio was a much more rollicking affair. Still no drinks, though.

We know about Hermes thanks to newspaper columnist, radio commentator, magazine writer and television broadcaster Geoff Brookes, who wrote a regular column for The Argus titled “Your night out”.  Brookes went on to open his own restaurant, Geoff Brookes Steak Cave, in 1965. His column, in the mid-1950s, shows that the Melbourne restaurant scene was more varied than one might think.

For example, in Greville Street, Prahran, Antonio’s belied its Italian name with a dish of Schesliks Kaukosienne (tasty pieces of fillet steak, calves’ kidney, bacon, tomato and onion, grilled on a special skewered dish, burnt with brandy at the table).

Meanwhile, at the (unlicensed) Volga Volga Restaurant, also in South Yarra, you could sample Cutlets a la Kiev, while enjoying Russian melodies on piano and accordion by Serveev. Mischa’s violin and “rollicking Russian songs at 8.30 nightly from Shura himself” were a further attraction.

The (also unlicensed) Joliette Dutch Restaurant, upstairs in Swanston Street, offered that well-known Dutch speciality Chicken Honolulu as their featured dish. For 10 shillings ($1.00), you were provided with “attractively served chicken in batter, fried in butter, with pineapple, fresh spinach, green peas and sliced French-fried potatoes”. At the Joliette you had to eat early: dinner hours were 4.45 to 8pm.

A select few Melbourne restaurants were fully licensed, including Ricco’s Restaurant, in Spring Street opposite Parliament House. There a mere 6/6d  (65  cents) would get you a plate of Scalopes [sic] Bolognaise. And the Italian flavours were enhanced by music from Vassile Ilster at the piano and Victor Ricco’s violin. But the highlight was surely the singing waiters.

Maxim’s, in Toorak Road, was a little more refined. And considerably more expensive. When it opened in 1954, the press gushed about the interior design. “Behind a charcoal grey façade, lightened with citron yellow blinds and gay geranium window boxes, lies a ‘little bit of Paris’,” said The Herald. Inside, murals after the style of Renoir, with “a touch of Toulouse Lautrec” set a suitably Parisian scene.

Unsurprisingly, the dish put forward as the house specialty was Coq au Vin, a whole chicken in wine sauce with peas, fried potatoes and tomatoes, carved before your eyes at the table. At 29/6d  ($3.95) for two, it was haute cuisine indeed.  Maxim’s had discreet French recorded music and no singing waiters.

One of the restaurants Brookes mentioned in his column is memorable less for its own sake but for what it later became. Drossou’s  Restaurant was located upstairs at 243 Lonsdale Street. Although the chef was Greek, the cooking was more broadly continental, with dishes like Tournedos Chasseur as well as the more typical Dolmates. It possessed that rare asset – an Australian wine licence. In 1960, Drossou’s was taken over by Gloria and Blyth Staley and transformed into Fanny’s – one of Melbourne’s most iconic restaurants until its closure in 1993.

Capers was a popular Melbourne restaurant from 1959 to 1973
Capers Restaurant, 1967 (State Library of Victoria)

The introduction of a new restaurant licence in 1960 began to transform Melbourne’s dining scene. Capers, at the trendy end of Collins Street, was the first to apply for the new licence.  Capers was opened in 1959 by Peter Shelmerdine (of the Myer family) and became a favourite with ladies who lunched. The restaurant’s licence application was initially refused because the kitchen space was deemed to be inadequate. Instead, the first restaurant to gain the coveted licence was Balzac, in East Melbourne, operated by Mirka and Georges Mora.

In the 1960s dining out became progressively less about singing waiters and dance floors and more about the food and wine. By the mid-1970s diners no longer expected entertainment with their avocado seafood and chicken bordelaise. All the restaurants Geoff Brookes recommended are long gone, with the exception of the Florentino, now Grossi Florentino.  And it’s hard to find a good Chicken Honolulu anywhere these days.  Especially for just $1.

Featured image:  I confess I cheated with this one. It actually comes from Sydney and shows Elizabeth Connelly, TWA air hostess from New York being serenaded by the head waiter with Mr and Mrs George Miller playing the violin and accordion respectively, Music Hall Restaurant, Apr 1965