Service station service

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Church service or car service? Painting by Rachael Wakefield-Rann

For a modern institution that is explicitly about service, todays service stations offer very little in the way of meaningful service experience. Gone are the days when the station staff would come out, welcome customers before filling their car and perhaps offer a windscreen clean and an oil check. Unless you’re one of those well-adapted individuals that uses the pay-at-the-pump option, heading inside often involves a decent wait in a queue while attempting to ignore the temptations and visual noise of the more or less exclusively nasty range of snacks and reading material.

There are a few exceptions. The crew at Rosebery Service Station in Sydney still offer the full-service experience.  Unsurprisingly it’s a long standing (since 1974), family run businesses. There’s a small handful of traditional service stations like these that exist around the country.

At the other, more contemporary, end of the spectrum, the Caltex on Parramatta Road in Concord is the first of its kind to ditch the old Star Mart brand and adopt “The Foodary”, which offers a range of healthy, gourmet food (by service station standards), including Brasserie Bread and Sumo Salad.

This is certainly innovation by increments. Any suggestion of “transformation” in the language of those associated with the development needs to be taken with a grain of salt. The fit-out is a classic example of what Kyle Chayka calls “airspace”, a kind of watered down hipster aesthetic; minimalism combined with organic authenticity. There are mobile knowledge workers on their laptops and plenty of indoor plants in the advertising imagery.

Bruce Rosengarten’s (Caltex Australia’s Executive General Manager Commercial) suggestion that The Foodary doesn’t look like a traditional petrol station is true up to a point: it doesn’t look like a traditional petrol station, but there won’t be any enduring sense of vertigo regarding where you’ve ended up once you go inside. It’s pretty much Star Mart plus Sumo Salad, some nutritious snacks, decent bread and “neutered Scandinavianism”. And perhaps Caltex will be all the better for it. If you haven’t got an eye for detail, then have a couple of drinks, go inside, spin around on the same spot for a minute, open your eyes, and you might feel for a second as though you’re in Manly Greenhouse. 

Service station restaurants

On a few occasions in the past I’ve been revived fleetingly after a couple of hours in the surf by a sausage roll, a Dare Iced Coffee and a packet of Kettle chilli chips from the Caltex on Pittwater Road in Manly, or by a Nandos burger above the BP on Parramatta Road before a big drive west. However, for the most part, the food at service stations is like the food at the cinema, a masochistic pleasure that I’d willingly see replaced by something more nutritious, distinctive and tasty.

In an urban context, taxi and now to a lesser extent Uber drivers are the “extreme users” of service stations (in the country its truckies). There are a couple of service stations close to the inner city that offer, or once offered, services that cater specifically to their needs.

The Taxi Driver Food Court on Regent Street in Redfern, previously part of the GoGas Service Station (now Budget), once offered a range of Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Indian tucker. You could get a seasonal vegetables, daal and a drink with plain rice there for under ten bucks. 

The Taxi Driver Food Court, soon to be Manny’s Pizza Diner

It’s currently empty shell is surely ripe for a popup foodie concept: it’s right across from the swarming hipster nest that is the Lord Gladston, has 24hr licence and is the perfect combination of grungy novelty and proximity to trend aware consumers, who tend to spend their money on food and drink.

(And sure enough, hot off the press, Evan Hansimikali, previous owner of the recently sold Pink Salt in Double Bay, has purchased the servo and will open Manny’s Pizza Diner in the space later this year.)

On Bourke Street Waterloo, right in the thick of the rapidly emerging jungle of apartment blocks, is a small cafe/ restaurant attached to the United Petrol Station, which is  much frequented by cab drivers due to its gas bowser, discount offers on fuel, generous parking spaces and garage. The cafe doesn’t operate during the evenings, but has outdoor tables and chairs and sells a range of dishes, including banh mi rolls.  

Although there’s no petrol on offer, the Weighbridge Cafe on Bourke Rd in Alexandria is another unique, culinary-automotive-service mashup. Here you can get your vehicle weighed while downing a latte and scoffing a caesar salad.

The future of service stations

According AECOM, there were around 25,000 service stations in Australia in the 1970s, with a national population of 13 million, that’s roughly one for every 520 people. Today there are about 6,500 service stations in total for a population that has almost doubled. 

Car ownership is increasingly unpopular among urban millennials in Australia. AECOM’s Transport On Demand report “predicted that every car share vehicle in Sydney could take up to 10 private vehicles off the road by 2036”. 

What does this mean for the future of service stations? Maybe they’ll become places that are increasingly frequented by a more exclusive set of users? Maybe they’ll develop offerings that are more meaningfully targeted to the values and habits of particular user groups, like Saturday Uber drivers, or people hiring a GoGet for a road trip—I remember a time when browsing the CD or cassette selection in a servo on a road trip was decent way to take a break from the rigours of the highway, though I’m not sure if I ever bought one. Maybe the human body, crippled by the  posture driving requires us to adopt, is the real thing stations should be servicing? 

The people at AECOM argue that the value in service stations “is not the fuel they provide” but “their strategically significant locations” (something clearly recognised by Hansimikali in his recent purchase). As electric and other low emissions options become more common, there’s less of the undesirable fume-filled atmospherics required by petrol vehicles. Service stations feature large, level sections of sheltered outdoor space. In a future after petrol, with the right kind of design, they might become the ideal location for outdoor eating?

In the 1970s, warehouses in New York’s old industrial suburbs became the foundations for a new, globally sought after postindustrial aesthetic of loft living. Maybe the old automotive infrastructure of cities will become mixed into new modes of leisure and movement? I suppose if Merviale can do it in a drive through bottlo, why not a service station? 

The other just as likely alternative is evidenced in the stone horse troughs that pop up in surprising locations in the city. In rural NSW, where station numbers have dwindled significantly due to a marked decrease in the labour required on farms, the old bowsers already pop up with a reasonable degree of regularity in locations where they are orphaned from their original purpose.

If, as Roland Barthes suggested, “cars today are almost the exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals”, then no doubt some of automotive infrastructure of our cities will be preserved, some of it converted and some demolished. Perhaps the traditional service models, like the one still operative in Rosebery, will be the ones that endure.   

The Caltex Sign at the Wattle Flat General Store
More signage like this please! Petersen’s Garage in Bundanoon
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Fish and chips: A Retro Future

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From the menu board at the long running Vaucluse Ocean Foods

Getting takeaway fish and chips, or more truthfully, chips and potato scallops, from the shop at Crescent Head is one of the enduring memories from my family holidays in the late eighties and early nineties. The nice old lady would always throw in an extra scallop or two, a gesture which at the time expressed a level of generosity so grand it was beyond the powers of my young mind to compute.

It closed sometime in the 90s, and such a shame. The beach holiday never seemed complete without that paper parcel gradually becoming transparent due to the oil soaked goodness it held together.

As noted by John K. Walton in his stand alone socio-historical study, Fish and Chips and the British Working Class, 1870-1930, fish and chips is “in many ways the pioneer fast food industry”. Like many other craft-based industries, fish and chips evolved from a “petty” hawker trade to something that existed on an industrial scale (246). The peak of their popularity was during the interwar years, where in industrial cities like Preston, “there must have been, quite literally, a fish and chop shop on every street” (247). For many working class families, they functioned as an affordable escape from the monotony of “bread, dripping, jam and tea”.

Fish and chips became part of the way British people described who they are. A kind of national symbol that to some degree transcended social class. Walton cites a wistful remark from a patriotic, right wing magazine published in 1927, lamenting that England used to stand for “statesmanship and stability, bowler hats and brollies, afternoon tea, cricket, old school ties, fish and chips, jellied eels and a week at Bognor”.

To some extent fish and chips in Australia also shares a connectedness to values associated with working class patriotism. Perhaps the most significant example of this in recent years is evident in the story of Pauline Hanson, who has often traded on her experience owning and working in a fish and chip in Ipswich.

A mood in a meal

While neither uniform nor complete, fish and chips have undergone a decline in Britain and Australia since the second World War. There are no doubt many reasons for this, key among them the increased presence and popularity of other, aggressively marketed, fast-food options from America.

To this extent, fish and chips have value as retro icon, which can be activated for both negative and positive purposes. In W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, for example, fish and chips are part of the broader, melancholic atmospherics of British seaside towns, such as Lowestoft and Southwald, which no longer cater to the same number of holiday goers they once saw in their heyday, before Ryanair allowed people to fly to Northern Spain for a pittance—although, other perspectives on the towns show them in a less lugubrious dimension than Sebald.

Sitting down to dinner in an otherwise deserted hotel restaurant in Lowestoft, the narrator is served “a fish that had doubtless lain entombed in the deep-freeze for years”. The amusing description which follows is without doubt the most elaborate piece of culinary criticism in Sebald’s oeuvre:

The breadcrumb amour plating of the fish had been partially singed by the grill, and the prongs of my fork bent on it. Indeed it was so difficult to penetrate what eventually proved to be nothing but an empty shell that my plate was a hideous mess once the operation was over. The tartare sauce that I had had to squeeze out of the plastic sachet was turned grey by the sooty breadcrumbs, and the fish itself, or what feigned to be fish, lay a sorry wreck among the grass-green peas and the remains of soggy chips that gleamed with fat.

There are few better ways to dramatise a sense of disappointment than through a bad meal. If, as Steven Connor suggests, eating is ‘the most conspicuous form of our bodily transactions with the world’ (2010: 332), then the descriptions of food can carry with them the sensory force of an insult or embrace.  Sebald transfers some of the sensitivity he shows to buildings, atmospheres, people and objects to the delights and disappointments of the table. The battered fish is understood as the consequence of different, enduring events that occur over time (from its tomb in the deep freeze, to the grill, to the narrator’s plate) and a spatially interesting phenomena, composed of a distinct interior and exterior.

The presence of oil, such a crucial aspect of the fish and chip experience in general, gives further expressivity to the meal. Oil is unique as a substance in its paradoxical capacity to mediate and carry light between the interior and the surface. This no doubt partially explains its centrality to religious rites of unction, a power is which is backgrounded in favour of the restorative creaminess of contemporary cosmetics (Connor, 2004). When things gleam with oil, like the narrator’s chips, they suggest an oiliness that is more than just a surface phenomena. Things that gleam with oil are oily through and through. Oil soaked.

Battered nationalities

Leo Schofield is more sanguine in his account of the iconic Australian fish and chippie, Doyles, in the Avis Guide Eating Out in Sydney 1975. Writing of the now closed iteration of the restaurant at Rose Bay, Schofield describes the atmospherics as “rampant Aussie kitsch”, and, like the fish and chips in Britain, which represents something essentially British, is essentially Australian:

The menu with its news items about Granny Doyle’s secret recipe for Chilli Plum Sauce, the waitresses in their button-through dirndls, the nickel cubes of paper serviettes, the waxed paper buckets of tartare sauce, the massive helpings…could they happen anywhere else but Oz?

The meal is the battleground where Australia fights to transcend its Anglo heritage: “The British may have invented Fish and Chips but the Doyle’s perfected them. Made batter that’s crispier and crunchier than any Pommie fish chop could manage and wrapped it round fish that leaves plaice at the starting post in the flavour stakes”. Much hinges on the batter, which is the vehicle for delivering the allusive but all important crispness.

The late twentieth century cultural theorist Roland Barthes has perhaps had the best word on the culinary phenomenon of crispness, which he suggests “designates an almost magical quality, a certain briskness or sharpness, as opposed to the soft, soothing character of sweet foods.’’ In oily foods like fish and chips the task of generating crispness is all the more tenuous, but when it comes off, satisfying richness is covertly delivered as a kind of freshness. Richness as freshness, which the Krispy Cream franchise so unabashedly advertises, is the ultimate culinary trick.

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Doyle’s at Watson’s Bay

The sensory impact of the dish and the experience at Doyles becomes the material for what, with contemporary eyes, seems to be one of the most unfortunate food related metaphors I’ve come across: “The fish, of course, is wonderful and the French would poach it exquisitely, veil it in some cloud-like sauce and gently seduce one’s taste buds. At Doyles they’re not French and Australians prefer rape to seduction any day”. And if that weren’t bad enough, he continues, “If it’s inevitable, relax and enjoy it.” Then, on the next page, the review for Doyles on the Beach, at Watson’s Bay, begins, “Rape as before, but this time on the beach.”

I’ve discussed the political and ethical implications of this language is some detail elsewhere. Sadly we haven’t moved on that far: the US president happily flouts the word when manufacturing a sense of indignation about the extent to which foreign countries feel an entitlement to America’s benevolence.

Passing over the chilling nature of Schofield’s metaphor, it’s evident that once again fish and chips provide the context for an Australian identity to be distinguished. This time the meal functions as a point of distinction between Aussies and the French, who are stereotyped as more delicate and seductive, in comparison with the brash, direct Australian experience on offer at Doyles. Schofield is no doubt letting his own writing drift into a kind of deliberate poor taste that matches the kitsch quality of Doyles. Whether or not it serves him well in this regard I’m unsure.

For Schofield, and perhaps for Sydney, Doyle’s has become a paradigm for Australian dining. When referring to the Paragon Seafood Restaurant in Malabar, he describes it as “the Southern Suburbs answer to Doyles” and muses that in the right weather when “the sun is high and the wind not too much so” that there is “no more perfect place to lunch” than at the concrete promenade at Watsons Bay (where the oldest iteration of Doyles Fish and Chip Restaurant still operates).

Contemporary Kitschury

Detecting kitsch has become difficult now that irony is so pervasive and its manifestations so varied. Merivale’s growing portfolio of themed eating outlets toy with the limits of the stylish and the kitsch in this regard. The Fish Shop in Potts Point is a perfect example. A classic Sydney manifestation of the culinary postmodern, it’s a retro throwback to a pastiche of different histories and cultures, and to my knowledge the first, new, self consciously retro fish and chippie of its kind in the city. Terry Durack captures it well in his 2012 review: “Part English fish-and-chippy, part New York oyster bar and part Maryland crab shack, it’s also hysterically, crazily, absurdly, over-themed”. The least authentic thing about it is the $28 price tag for the fish and chips, a far cry from its working class origins. It’s an approach that makes use of history and culture as reference points, but the goal is atmosphere rather than accuracy—so, if he wants to remain free from hypocrisy, this writer can’t afford to be too cynical about the enterprise.

Once again, much is made of the consistency of the batter in Durack’s review:

“The four fingers [of flathead] are lightly battered and lightly cooked, which means the fish is cooked perfectly but the batter softens quickly. They’re going to have to toughen up and cook longer and harder, especially for takeaway orders. The accompanying chips, some of which are skin-on, are also quick to soften; as opposed to the golden triple-cooked chips you get when you order chips as a side order ($6.50).”

Softness is the death of crispness. Such is the importance of this mysterious “food spirit”, to use Barthes’ words, that it is worth risking over-cooked fish in order to achieve it.

The new Saint Peter fish butchery on Oxford Street is a further evolution in the fish and chip culture of Sydney. An absence of omnipresent fish shop ice, or the ice-water hybrid, slurry, will be among it’s key features. Transition to slurry, or more broadly, temperature control, is the reason why traditional fish and chippies often feature those distinctive plastic flaps at the entrance.

Fish in the Saint Peter butchery will “be displayed in static refrigeration rather than on ice”. A small scale approach will allow proprietors Josh and Julie Niland to focus on the product with a degree fastidiousness hitherto unheard of in fish retail. Part of this approach is informed by Niland’s knowledge that once caught, fish and water do not mix. It gets into sponge-like flesh and, you guessed it, prevents the flesh from  staying crisp: “If there is excess moisture present, the skin will struggle to stay crisp or the flesh will be wet and potentially mushy if cooked through.” 

The butchery will sell the takeaway fish and chips previously available at the nearby restaurant, which, in my opinion, is the best fish and chips in the city.

Gleaming with reviews

According to Google Maps there are a handful of fish and chip shops near where I live in Waterloo. The oldest is Alexandria Seafood, established in 1986. Thirty plus years is great going in a city like Sydney, particularly when persisting at the same thing without expanding or reimagining the enterprise.

Unlike many of the new eateries in the area, Alexandria Seafoods is not in a food precinct in a converted industrial warehouse. It’s not on a high street either. I must have come close to seeing it dozens of times, in the blur of a run or a car trip, before it became explicit: an isolated marine outpost in an unlikely suburban street. On the various drop down banners and the awning a distinctive fish icon swims amid bubbles. There’s another, different fish on a backlit sign above the awning, with a curious, bright green face and tail.

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Worryingly, the only fish on display on my recent visit is already in batter and looking a long way from fresh. There’s a laminated page from the 2006 SMH Good Living (what Good Food used to be called), stuck to the wall, exact date November 28. It’s from section written up by Kate Duthie, titled ‘Feedback’. The reader-centred premise is made for a dish like fish and chips, which induces parochialisms usually reserved for mum’s cooking or regional preferences. Annie, Craig, Deez, Rach, Sunny, Polly, Crustacean lover, Weezy, Scott, Gill, Liz, J.S., Diane, Peter, CD, Tim, papertiger and Jason have all written in with their favoured fish and chippies. Jason’s comment is last, highlighted in pink:

Alexandria Seafoods on Mitchell Road is always busy, regardless of when you go there. And for good reasons. The fish and chips are lovely and crisp, and never too oily. Grab half a dozen oysters while you wait and your fish and chips down the road at Sydney Park.

Crispness, again! And maintaining that delicate balance of oily goodness without greasy saturation.

I can confirm with certainty that today the place is no longer “always busy”: it is sometimes not busy. On Sunday evening last week, for example, there wasn’t another customer in sight at 6pm. I wonder how they justified having four blokes behind the counter watching the league. Maybe turning a profit is only part of the story and it’s also an opportunity for the family to hangout. Maybe they do their trade a bit later, or earlier, when the footy is on at Erskinville Oval. Maybe Fishbone & Co, recently awarded “The Best Chips in NSW” (by who I’m not sure), just up the road on McEvoy Street is sucking away some of the trade.

The reader review from 2006 stuck to the wall is a quaint artefact from a time when such perspectives were harder to access. Search ‘Alexandria Seafoods’ in Google and you’re immediately supplied with 83 Google Reviews, plus 37 on Zomato, 11 on Trip Advisor and 10 on Facebook, each accompanied by the omnipresent scale of five stars.

My levels of doubt about quality increase as I read more reviews, despite the overall rating of 4.5 stars. All it takes is a couple of naysayers to introduce uncertainty (the same technique used by climate change deniers). This is the world of online rating systems, where the standard very quickly becomes ratcheted up to perfect, close to perfect or a no go zone. Soon it will make more sense to assume everything is between 4 and 5 stars and give the score as a fraction between 4 and 5. Then as a smaller fraction between 4.9 and 5 when that system is broken. And so on ad infinitum. The Zeno’s Paradox of online rating systems.

While there’s not a fish and chip shop on every corner these days, viewed through the prism of a smartphone, there seems like there’s enough to keep even a capricious foodie occupied. Catching the train from Penrith to Redfern with ‘fish and chips’ typed into Google Maps is an experience that is at once distressing and full of promise, as tens of unvisited, frequently reviewed, fish and chippies appear and disappear on the smartphone.

Maybe there’s something in Ben Evan’s idea of future shops trying to make themselves ungoogleable, catering to a loyal crowd of word-of-mouth customers, with the paradoxical collateral, no doubt, of appealing to hipsters and being discussed  more than ever online. It’s easy to see how trying to opt out of the internet would  become a full time occupation, there’d certainly be no time left to watch the rugby league on Sunday.

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The iconic wavy roof in The One That Got Away, on Bondi Road

Works cited

Barthes, Roland. ‘‘Toward a Psychosociology of Contemporary Food Consumption,’’ in Food and Culture: A Reader, ed. Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik (New York: Routledge, 1997), 31.

Connor, Steven. The Matter of Air (London: Reaktion, 2010).

Connor, Steven. The Book of Skin, (London: Reaktion, 2004).

Lee, Tom. “Contemporary Perspectives in Aesthetic Theory: Steven Connor, Sianne Ngai and the Edible World.” Journal of Aesthetics and Culture (2016): 8 (1).

Sebald, W. G. The Rings of Saturn. Trans. Michael Hulse. London: Harvill Press, 1998.

Walton, J.K., Fish and Chips, and the British Working Class, 1870-1940. (A&C Black, 1994).

Pizza Hut in the home of the hats?

Pizza Hut in the home of the hats?

Gemima Cody’s review of Pizza Hut in the Icon Review section of the Sydney Morning Herald ‘Good Food’ this week is a significant moment in the history of the publication. The review is a clear exemplification of the impacts of networked culture on food criticism and notions taste more broadly.

Traditionally ‘Good Food’ has been a publication focused on fine dining and evaluations of quality according to a spectrum orientied by extremes of praise and criticism. A review of Pizza Hut is a clear anomaly in this tradition.

The review is part of recent digital trend of Pizza Hut nostalgia, arguably spawned by Mike Neilson’s blog Used to be Pizza Hut, which he started in 2008 and attracted a story from Business Insider in 2014.

This was followed by Ho Hai Tran and Chloe Cahill’s more widely reported efforts working on the same premise, which attracted enough of an internet following to be covered in a range of niche and popular publications, and led to a Kickstarter funded book.

Tran and Cahill were able build their archive of over 100 locations by using Google Maps and communities of Pizza Hut fans, who “have provided invaluable help since they started the project in 2013.”

The amusing incongruity effect created by seeing the mansard roof common to all Pizza Huts giving birth to another business (from to Savlos to pool shops) make them an ideal product for the flow of photographic images exchanged on the internet. The timing is also right. Kids of the 80s and 90s, when the restaurants were most widespread, are now among the determining forces in media.

***

The internet and digital photography are part of a media ecology where it is possible for “amateur” food commentators, or ‘prosumers’, to create significance by making it easier to document and publicise what might otherwise be insignificant. This has created diverse contexts with internally evolved criteria for what counts as relevant. Lowbrow enthusiasms and highbrow culture are thereby increasingly intermixed.

A single Pizza Hut converted into a childcare centre is the kind of trivial detail that will pass into irrelevance without a network. Image sharing services and digital connectivity create the possibility of making anything into a collection that is created and sustained by diverse interest based communities.

Sianne Ngai’s work on the aesthetic category of ‘the interesting’ gives a compelling interpretation of visual culture in this context. While the roots of the interesting might be traced back to “the dramatic expansion of print circulation in the 1790s”, they are most forcefully explicated in online social networks where massive amounts of photographic content is evaluated every second according low grade affective responses, of which the Facebook ‘like’ or the Instagram ‘heart’ icon are the most notable archetypes.

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Pizza Hut and other fast food chains aim to create a standardised restaurant experience. Permitting minor cultural variations, the architecture, interior design, staff training, graphic design, service model and food on the plate all conform to the same restaurant concept, whether you’re in Ballarat, Orange, or, indeed, Wichita.

This foundation of standardisation provides an important contrasting tension for the efforts of those like Neilson, Cahill and Tran, whose photographic collections show an opposing force of individuation, as old Pizza Huts become new, different businesses. As Ngai points out, the dynamic between standardisation and individuation, or the different and the typical, is a crucial part of the aesthetic of the interesting.

The element of standardisation in the franchise concept is also what enables the other key element of Cody’s review: nostalgia. The driving premise of the article is that readers will remember a comparable experience in the Pizza Huts of their youth. The quality of the food is less important than the lens of memory by which the experience is relived.

As Heston Blumenthal has demonstrated for some time, nostalgia and high-end food experiences are not antagonists. However, Blumenthal aims to inject nostalgia into exceptional, unique dining experiences, the antithesis of Pizza Hut.

There is nothing renewed or transformed in the Ballarat Pizza Hut Cody reviews. It’s expected to be the same, mediocre food which she remembers as an excited kid going to Pizza Hut in the 90s, and that’s the point.

Like the successful Netflix series Stranger Things, which revives the style and atmosphere of 1980s fantasy and horror narratives of Steven Spielberg and Steven King, her review trades on feelings of comfort and familiarity that food critics tend to value less than originality and exemplarity.

***

The nuancing activities of “amateur” food writers are bringing the bad, the mediocre and the sentimental into focus. Notions of taste are being reshaped as a result. It would be misleading to suggest digital culture is the determining force, but it is a key catalysing ingredient in a broader ecology.

Influential publications like the Sydney Morning Herald are looking to these diverse taste making communities for concepts that speak more directly to their audience. If they don’t continue to search broadly and experiment, maybe a future not dissimilar to Pizza Hut awaits? Maybe, in light of the new Pizza Hut concept store in Waterloo which opened this year, that future is already here?

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New Pizza Hut concept store in Waterloo apartmentia

The Avis guide to Eating Out in Sydney 1975

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Different times

Leo Schofield’s Avis Guide Eating Out in Sydney 1975 puts the reader in touch with restaurants that not only conform to different culinary trends but to significantly different ways of organising society. Allen’s Cafe at 802 George Street, which is reviewed in the guide, was operational in the 1920s. Here the tea that comes with every meal is “thick and red brown” like “the Darling in flood” and diners could get Vincents and Bex powders from dispensers by the till. These cure-all analgesic medications were commonly sold over the counter until the 1970s and contained a combination of aspirin, phenacetin and caffeine, which was later recognised to be addictive and the cause of kidney disease.

In 1975 laws still existed that dictated bread couldn’t be baked on Sundays, which led Mrs Klein of the Junction Cake Centre (111 Oxford Street Bondi Junction) to up the sultana quantity in her bagels so they qualified as cakes.

Schofield’s prose also indicates a markedly different set of rules regarding what is permissible language in a publication like the Good Food Guide. There is a toe curling use of rape as an metaphor to distinguish the Australian approach to cooking fish from the French. It extends over the two seperate reviews for the Doyles Fish n’ Chip restaurants at Rose and Watsons Bay, which Schofield lauds both for their brash atmosphere and food: “The fish, of course, is wonderful and the French would poach it exquisitely, veil it in some cloud-like sauce and gently seduce one’s taste buds. At Doyles they’re not French and Australians prefer rape to seduction any day”. And if that weren’t bad enough, he continues, “If it’s inevitable, relax and enjoy it.” Then, on the next page, the review for Doyles on the Beach begins, “Rape as before, but this time on the beach.”

There are a couple of different tensions that will inform the way readers can interpret the use of such language. One perspective is to see such language as a product of the times, and no less regrettable due to this fact. According to such a view, it is possible to see this jarring use of a word that is now broadly considered to be anything but casual in tone as an opportunity to reflect on the subtle way the metaphorical connotations shift according to patterns of use. Rape is a word that by my judgement has become increasingly specific in its connotations, and something that could never be used ambiguously to denote the broader field of reference captured by a term such ‘violate’, for example, which is the French translation. If Schofield had chosen the less evocative ‘assault’ the affect would have been less disquieting. When the word rape is used today, it typically takes on a meaning that is distasteful and threatening in the extreme—and yet, perhaps we have not moved on so far: until recently it was not uncommon on my Facebook feed to see accusations of ‘frape’, an equally jarring use of the word to describe the practice of taking possession of another persons Facebook account (without consent) and writing hoax status updates.

Alternatively, readers might interpret use of this term as an expression, however fleeting in comparison with the bulk of his prose, of an insensitive attitude towards women, which ought not to be so easily forgiven. Of course men can be raped too, and statistics show this is a more common occurrence than one might think. However, when a heterosexual male uses the word it’s hard to believe they are imagining a man as the victim. Typically I wouldn’t be so brave as to speculate what exactly the author might have been imagining. However, in this case, it’s right there on the page. Schofield squeezed every last drop of descriptive force from the metaphor and clearly got quite caught up in the idea.

The mind boggles to think of the social media storm that would ensue if a current reviewer for the equivalent publication tried anything of this kind. Perhaps even the strong evaluative sentiment which I am expressing is only a relatively recent phenomenon, and the question of judgement about such uses of language is unlikely to have been as much of a bugbear during the period.

Nostalgia for nostalgia

If it’s possible to bracket the presence of such a howler, there is much to enjoy by escaping into the fantasy that there is a lack of contrivance, or naivety in contrivance, in the broader foodie landscape in 1975.

It begins with the book cover, which is right in the retro aesthetic zone of the immensely seductive title sequence to the successful Nexflix TV series Stranger Things. Other than the back and front cover, the publication lacks any of the photographic images which gradually began to creep into the publication after the mid-90s.

In the contemporary restaurant scene, trend and contrivance operate to such an intensified degree that there seems little room for the relatively casual eccentricity of the kind Schofield enjoyed at Allegro in 1975 (1 Porters Road Kenshurst). Allegro specialises in Dutch Home-style cooking with a set menu based around chicken dishes, the birds sourced from local farms, or “hare and rabbit trapped locally”. He remarks on the distinctive “bowls of boughs and branches and flowers tastefully scattered around” and the unusual and distinctive “big decorative platter” on which the bird is served, along with “buttered vegetables and a seperate dish of fruits to eat with it”.

The chance of experiencing the distinctiveness of this atmosphere seems unlikely in the contemporary dining scene evoked by the recent guides. It’s so difficult to escape trends now due to online image sharing services like Pinterest, Instagram and influential bloggers. This is the case both for proprietors and designers–who despite the increasingly large pool of ideas from which to draw, all seem rapidly to converge on aesthetic standards within a given trend cycle–or for the reviewer/diner, who is likely to have dined at enough imitation varieties of such eccentricity prior to experiencing the real version that their experience is inevitably tarnished.

Of course framing the difference between the past and the contemporary in such a way is misleading to the extent that it suggests a radical departure rather than an evolution—no doubt one might have made the same claim about the rapid spread of trends in the 70s compared to the 20s.

Schofield mentions a couple of trends often enough for them to stand out: the ubiquity of a certain style of French provincial cooking and coloniana, which is referred to in the review of Argyle Tavern: “Colonial coevalescent homes, Colonial delicatessens, Colonial motels—Australia is on a Coloniana kick and we eagerly await the opening of the country’s first Colonial laundrette.” In the case of the Argyle this includes: “rafters, hurricane lamps and menus printed like colonial newspapers. And Steak-and-Kidney-Pie-type food in the Australian manner.” There was a lot more steak and kidney pie being served back in the 70s.

French restaurants outnumber the next most common cuisines by some way. There are 45 French listings, 16 Italian, and, perhaps the biggest surprise, the now defunct category of Anglo Saxon comes in a close third with 15. German, Balkan, Dutch and Swiss are more of a presence than they are in later guides, and there is no mention of the soon to be common Thai, no Vietnamese, and only one Japanese listing, which according to Schofield, is a cuisine still exotic enough to leave little room for ambiguity of preference. He baldly remarks: “You either like Japanese food or you don’t.”

The arrival of Latin America

The 1975 guide includes reference to the first South American restaurant in Australia, cryptically named, Latin America, at 225 Oxford Street Darlinghurst. As mentioned in my previous reviews, the evolution of food culture in Sydney shows an unmistakable trend towards regional specificity. Today foodies expect cuisine that is associated with specific regions within countries, as evidenced in Terry Durack’s recent review for the recently opened Mexican restaurant Chula, in which he remarks on the “strong regional spin to the menu” and a focus on “Oaxacan street food”. Not in 1975!

If it hasn’t already happened, I’m tipping a few new restaurants in the coming years that deliberately play to the now seemingly counter cultural International, Pan-European, Pan-Asian or Airport culinary aesthetic—kind of like the sentiment that informs the fashion trend normcore. This cuisine would need to lack the markers of regional and historical specificity that inform contemporary foodie trends. The clincher will be whether there’s enough to distinguish such a style from Contemporary Australian. So maybe Asian, Colonial, South American, European or Soviet is the right scale at which to aim.

Crowd sourcing

Contrary to what is often said about the power of consumers in contemporary culture, the crowd sourcing in the older guide is far more explicit. Schofield commonly invokes the “letters and telephone calls” of readers, whose appraisals he sometimes quotes verbatim in his reviews. For example, he begins the review of Moro Restaurant on Parramatta Road with the description given by a Mosman reader: “A small Italian cafe in the heart of Italian delicatessen territory with the cooking done by the owner and his family.” He then includes her judgements of “very good” and “reasonable” agreeing with the latter. The review for Laddies at The Spit begins in the same fashion, only in this example Schofield pits his own review against the reader’s enthusiastic evaluations. While the reader describes the food as “excellent”, the helpings plentiful, and “presented well”, Schofield regards it as “reasonable”, the helpings “dauntingly large” and the presentation “average”.

There’s something lacking in the absence of a sense of a genuine dialogue with readers in the reviews of more recent guides, despite the penchant for an amicable, chatty tone. No doubt the editors have their reasons, but it’d be great to see a bit less polish and a bit more openness, hesitation or boldness, when witnessing the formation of taste based judgements in the guide. All the cozying up these days in the weekly SMH publication and the guide more generally is with chefs rather than punters–apart from Richard Cornish’s wonderful Brain Food section. I suppose there’s plenty of space for the punters to chat on Instagram or reviewing websites. 

The changing fortunes of Kings Cross

It seems change has been the norm for Kings Cross. In his review for the Buona Sera Restaurant, Schofield notes how in the fifteen years from 1960-1975, The Cross changed markedly from a “chic if faintly recherché place where you could stroll leisurely through leafy arcades and past elegant buildings to a poor copy of 42nd street where you have to tip toe through the hookers”. Again, the use of language grates. But it’s interesting to know the old cross that has recently been mourned has been around for little more than a generation. I suppose that’s all it takes.

(This post is dedicated to Alison Byrne who kindly sent me the copy of the guide after my last blog post)

The 1985-86 SMH Good Food Guide

The 1985-86 SMH Good Food Guide

What can the 1985-86 Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide tell us about the way culinary culture has changed in Sydney over the last thirty two years?

The book cover

The first thing is the cover. The early Good Food Guides were seemingly very keen on the crest as a graphic device: two lions in a metallic silver finish toasting wine glasses over a plate of lobster, set on an anchor. It has the look of an Australia preoccupied with parodying its increasingly distant anglo inheritance and hamming up the gaudy provincialism of the antipodes, a tradition that is surprisingly resilient in the illusion systems of popular culture today.

The bright orange, green and pink cover is a stark contrast to the stylish aesthetic of more recent editions of the guide. It’s a challenge to understand the mindset that informed the design choices without asking the designer and editors. I’m going to assume they were trying to appear jocular and provocative, knowingly poking fun at the performative element of fine dining, the even more gratuitous convention of having to eat at restaurants for a living and the arch persona of the then editor in chief, Leo Schofield. The centrality of the lobster, which readily toggles between luxury and kitsch, certainly suggests this.

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Ironically (in the Alanis Morissette sense of the word), a lobster dish would be at the centre of an enduring media storm surrounding Schofield and the guide, when, after a scathing review in 1984, the proprietor of the Blue Angel sued and won a case against Fairfax for defamation in 1989. (Though, perhaps this story is the reason for the presence of the lobster on the cover, the first edition of which came out the same year as the scandalous review, and therefore not coincidental/Morissette-ironic at all?)

More recent covers have favoured increasingly high quality photographic images, or bold, minimalist graphics, highlighting the icon of the chefs hat, which, as the recent tagline, “Australia’s home of the hats” indicates,  has apparently become core to the mission and values of the publication.

The closest contemporary equivalent to the earlier covers is the 2014 Good Food Guide, which returns to the cartoonish aesthetics of the earlier iterations, albeit in a significantly safer, toned down palette of red, white and black.

Looking at the 2013 cover, it doesn’t take long for a design to have the appearance of its times. The bold, shiny, rendered chefs hat, is too much an exercise in displaying the technological capabilities of the software used by the designers, rather than something that understands the technology as a tool in the service of something of greater substance or humour.

Francophilia 

The next thing is the relative abundance of restaurants with either ‘La’ or ‘Le’ in their title. Of the roughly 250 restaurants reviewed in Sydney, thirteen have names that include French or Italian translations of ‘the’: Le Beach Hut, Le Dodo, La Rustica and La Passion Du Fruit (clearly hamming it up) are my favourites. More recent guides still feature many ‘La’ restaurant names, but ‘Le’ has more or less completely vanished. I can only guess that ‘Le’ has become overly associated with naive appeals to Europe.

Current writer for the Good Food, Scott Bolles, points out the prominence of ‘Le’ and ‘La’ titles in his 2014 retrospective, noting that today’s restaurant scene seems more influenced by the US, particularly Los Angeles, than France.

About seventy of the total 250ish Sydney restaurants reviewed in the 1985-86 were categorised as French, compared with roughly twenty from a total of 350 in the 2015 guide.

The French influence in the 1985-86 guide sees quality expressed through making things into and covering things (usually cuts of meat) in rich sauces, a greater tolerance for and even celebration of stuffing food inside other food (“baked apple filed with prawns and smoked salmon” at Allouche’s in Sylvania is a stand out), and the presence of savoury mousses: perhaps a “charlotte of smoked salmon filled with scallop mousse” at Eliza’s Garden Restaurant in Double Bay, or would you prefer “venison cutlets in an orange, lime and lemon mousse with a sweet and sour sauce” at La Potiniere in McMahons Point?

Today the French influence still exists, however, it is more likely to manifest in more rustic, subdued, brasserie style exemplified in dishes like steak-frites.

Being nice and being mean

Today’s Good Food Guide  plays it safe in comparison to the 1985-86 edition. Perhaps incidents such as the Blue Angel case changed the attitude of food reviewers? Perhaps social expectations have shifted in favour of evaluations that are more generous and less likely to offend?

Double Bay locals certainly cop it in the review of Donini’s: “a perfect platform from which to view the passing parade of dowagers, anorexics and fashion victims who constitute a large part of the Bay’s shoppers”. Ouch!

Acid opinion still  seemingly has its place in other, online media, and recently the new GFG editor Myffy Rigby dished out some refreshingly insightful shaming of insensitive gentrification and juvenile service in this review of Misfits in Redfern.

However, it’s unlikely that cruelly stereotyping an entire suburb would make it through the editorial screening process, particularly when a mental illness is mentioned.

Schofield provides some very amusing quips throughout the guide. The Lamrock Cafe on Campbell Parade in Bondi, categorised in the now defunct genre of ‘Healthy Food’, receives this rebuke, at which it is difficult not to chuckle: “The menu consists almost entirely of salads, and there’s a vague air of ‘if there’s an avocado in the fridge, there’ll be a meal on the table'”.

The death of Leichhardt and the disappearance of suburban Italian

In the 2016 Good Food Guide there were roughly 350 restaurants reviewed in Sydney, of these only one was situated in Leichhardt (Apertivo) compared with four from a total of 250 in the 1985-86 edition. The decline of the suburb and Norton Street as the focal point for Italian food in Sydney has been covered elsewhere, paid parking and cultural stagnation have been cited as reasons.

Suburban Italian restaurants seem to crop up with relative regularity in the 1985 guide. This includes Bar Roma in Parramatta, Enrico’s in Merrylands, Il Buco in Enfield, Campbell’s Coach in Campbelltown, Il Geranio in Nth Strathfield, Il Vico in Top Ryde, La Pentola in Bankstown and Mariu in Petersham (now all permanently closed). While there are Italian restaurants in Linfield, Cronulla, Five Dock and Lane Cove in the 2015 edition, there’s a relative dearth further west. Hard for me to say whether these kinds of restaurants don’t exist anymore or whether they’re just not making the GFG cut.

The arrival of Thai

In his review for Manohra Thai in the 1985-86 edition Schofield revealingly remarks, “It’s all very bewildering. Just as we were beginning to order a Chinese meal with confidence, along comes Thailand”. Thai restaurants are now so much part of foodie culture they have become as taken for granted as cafes, pizza restaurants, burger joints and Chinese takeaway. Even the rustics among us can navigate their way to a pad thai, pad see ew or a Thai green curry with urbane effortlessness.  Still a bit suss on those desserts though, better to go get a Gaytime from the servo on the way home.

Antique Categories

There are a number of categories for cuisine used in the index for the 1985-86 guide that are amusingly anachronistic. These include: Jewish, International, Eclectic, Healthy Food, Anglo-Saxon and Individual.

‘Jewish’ cuisine is now more accurately distributed according to the range of nations which have been home to the Jewish diaspora throughout history. ‘Anglo-Saxon’ has been replaced by the less antiquated ‘British’. ‘Healthy Food’ now lacks the novelty and the identity to form a category of its own in the guide. With an increasing preference for regional specificity within nationalities, ‘International’ is right off trend. ‘Eclectic’ and ‘Individual’ have been absorbed in the presently bulging category of ‘Contemporary’.

The changing fortunes of avocado

The avocado is currently a symbol for missspent youth, typically taking the more rustic, smashed form, eaten at breakfast or brunch. In 1985-86 it was more common to see the fruit served for dinner in high-end restaurants. At La Grillade in Crows Nest there was “St Pierre avec avocado” and at Edna’s table the derided “avocado and cheese tart”, which is described as “a kind of guacomole with a halo of mung bean and red capsicum salad”.

Other notable mentions

– Cappuccino was the coffee by which restaurants were judged (“Desserts and cappuccino [at Clareville Kiosk] are first class”) and there was even a cafe with the quaintly retro sounding name Cappuccino City on Oxford Street in Paddington.

– There used to be two Laurie’s Vegetarians (now on Bondi Road): one in Darlinghurst on the corner of Burton and Victoria streets and one near Central Station–who knew!

– There used to be a Lentil as Anything in Manly?! In 1985?!

– Peter’s of Kensington is in there for “salads, quiches, fabulous chocolates”?!

– Still kickin’ (some in different iterations, some more or less unchanged): Badde Manors, Beppi’s, Berowra Waters Inn, Bill and Toni’s  The Dolphin Hotel, Laurie’s Vegetarian, Lucios, Jonahs, Clareville Kiosk, Unas…(there are probably others I have missed).

And to sum things up, the scallops mango, from Le Beach Hut in Dolls Point: “scallops served in half a mango with ginger and sour cream sauce”.

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