In 1976, Australia birthed three things: The AC/DC album High Voltage, the bratwurst stand at Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Market, and me. When I was a kid, my AC/DC-loving stepfather and I would brave the throngs in front of the bratwurst stand to claim our breakfast: Two regular brats, please, with mild mustard on half white rolls, along with a flat white for my stepfather made on the old espresso machine that grunted and whirred a few feet from the smoking grill.
After breakfast, we would embark upon our Saturday food-shopping ritual, a serious undertaking that circled outwards through the Vic Market's 17 sprawling acres of indoor and outdoor stalls. In the fruit sheds I could smell the edge of rot; in the chilly meat building whole carcasses hung, dead eyes staring. In the deli section, a vintage paradise of chrome and marble booths built in 1929, gold-painted lettering spelled out the businesses’ names and specialties: French pastries, tea, confections, cheese, olives, butter, bratwurst. I marveled at stalls festooned with hanging kielbasa, and stalls where they scooped thick Greek yogurt from tubs, and stalls with delicate European chocolates displayed like jewels. Shopping was a skill and a joy and a competitive sport. My stepfather haggled with the meat guy and selected the best vegetables hawked by old Greek men who shouted: “Bananabananabanana!!! Onedollaronedollarondollar!!!”
At the time, if you had asked me what I might miss most about my Melbourne life, the Markets wouldn’t have even crossed my mind. Boys, friends, record stores — these were the things I considered most meaningful.
In 1990, my American mother decided it was time for her to return home, and for the rest of us — four kids, one husband — to go with her. I arrived in Denver, Colorado, as a pissed-off 14-year-old with purple hair and a funny accent, separated from my father and my friends. My new home seemed to lack any discernible street life, only cars and tidy neighborhoods and malls. The most visceral culture shock came in the aisles of American supermarkets, which were sterile and bright and exciting in a morally ambiguous kind of way. The yogurt was different (sweeter), the candy was different (better), the cookies were called cookies, not biscuits. Rather than the vibrant, stinky thrill of Vic Market’s maze of stalls, in Denver, shopping for food was an act of sanitary consumerism. For my stepfather especially, the pleasure of shopping, and therefore of cooking and eating, was blunted. What had been a raucous joy became a cold chore.
My first true American friendship came once we left Denver and moved to Hartford, Connecticut. Toby was a crazy goth gay kid who wore black-and-white-striped tights with jean shorts and Doc Martens and only ate fluffernutter sandwiches. Like the rest of my new peers, he seemed to revel in his general dislike of food. The first time I went to his house, we stood in his gleaming, stark kitchen while he piled marshmallow fluff onto peanut butter toast and listed everything he wouldn’t eat: “Meat, vegetables, rice, soup. I used to eat pizza but it’s bad for my skin.”
By the time I left Melbourne, my friends and I had already started throwing elaborate dinner parties together. We scoured the city for the best fish and chips, obsessed over new restaurants and declared our allegiance to old ones. Stuck in abstemious America, I poured most of my petulant, goth-kid energy into yearning for Melbourne like a lost love-of-my-life, a mythical home that no one in this myopic, poorly nourished country would understand.
“Australia,” Toby said as we stood in his kitchen, his mouth sticky with peanut butter. “That’s in Europe, right?”
Do we not know how to eat in America? I felt that way when I arrived and I feel that way now, though we’re doing much better these days. (After all this time, I count myself as part of that "we." I hold dual U.S./Australian citizenship, and embrace all the tricky and proud self-examination that comes with identifying, even partially, as American.)
For the past decade, in my work as a food critic, I’ve witnessed America’s food revolution firsthand, and seen how a combination of changing tastes and rising culinary ambition has reshaped entire cities. I lived in Atlanta as the New South’s food identity blossomed, and I’m now in Los Angeles, right as the world has finally stopped turning up its collective nose at the city’s culinary riches. I have massive amounts of admiration and respect for the chefs, farmers, writers, and cooks who have pushed America to this point. But something profound is still missing, something that feels like it’s at the very root of my homesickness.
Why am I still not over Melbourne? I’ve lived in Colorado, Connecticut, New York, North Carolina, Georgia, and California, and all of them still, in some way, feel like home (except Colorado — sorry Denver). I spent 11 years in Melbourne (we moved there when I was three) and have now spent 26 in the U.S. And especially now, when avocado toast is taking America by storm (avocado toast is a 100 percent Australian invention, insofar as any one ingredient on a piece of bread can be), what is it exactly that I miss so deeply?
Traditionally, American chefs and food writers have looked to Europe to learn about cultivated eating. The story of the American ingenue taking her first bite of French baguette (with real butter!) or her first taste of a small, scarlet, perfect strawberry in a Provence marketplace — it’s so ubiquitous that it’s an utter cliche. America, we are told to believe, was settled too recently, was too influenced by industrialization, is made up of too many disparate cultures, and is burdened with too much shame to have a through-line of shared history that might allow a pure and pleasurable relationship with food. We fetishize Asia; we romanticize Europe. We reserve our most rapturous food epiphanies for travel.
But there is another young nation colonized by Anglos and defined by waves of immigrants that has incredible bread and strawberries and joie de vivre — America has just been too distracted by the kangaroos to see it. Beyond the cultural commonalities (including different brands of the same kind of shame), some of contemporary America’s biggest food trends are right out of my hometown’s playbook. Being from Melbourne and working in the American food world is like constantly being told — with great gusto — that the sky is blue. In the quarter-century I’ve lived here, I’ve seen America discover the joys of decent coffee, farmers markets become ubiquitous, and avocado toast spread like a plague. Food halls! Super creative breakfast using fresh ingredients and international flavors! Next-gen delis! All of these things have been happening in Melbourne since the 1980s, or in some cases, the 1890s. And not just as passing trends; they infuse the entire culture. The frumpily dressed grannies of Melbourne drink cappuccino and roast their legs of lamb with lemon and white wine and rosemary.
This isn’t just teenaged nostalgia talking: I returned to Melbourne this summer and discovered that the magic very much persists.
Melbourne is a port city, built around the seashell-shaped curve of Port Phillip Bay. For 40,000 years or so, it was inhabited by tribes of the Kulin Nation, hunter-gatherers who took advantage of its lush, temperate climate. French and British explorers began showing up around 200 years ago, and the area was colonized by the British in 1835. The Victorian gold rush in the mid-nineteenth century sparked an explosion of both population and wealth. The city’s grand, Victorian architecture is the kind of extravagance only gold could buy.
If the gold rush gave the city refined taste — during those years Melbourne consumed more Champagne than any other city on Earth — successive waves of immigration expanded its palate. The city’s famous cafe culture springs from a well-timed Italian influx: After World War I, the U.S. put policies in place that effectively halted the flow of Italians to America, and Australia became the favored alternative. Through a trick of timing and history, that switch from America to Australia coincided with the invention of the espresso machine. The Italian coffee culture that never quite made it to America blossomed in Melbourne. I know, I know — New York had an espresso machine in 1904 or whatever, but I’m not talking about one or two or ten cafes. I’m talking about hundreds of thousands of people who brought their taste for espresso with them.
Even before the rise of Italian cultural influence, the dominant Anglo culture built much of Australia’s social life around old, hulking pubs on practically every corner. Pubs have always been much more welcoming (and family-friendly) than any bars I can think of in America. That familiarity with a communal space primed Melbourne for the European-style cafe, another place in which to lead life publicly and socially.
Though the boom of Italian immigration to Melbourne began in the 1920s, it wasn't until 1954 that the first real Italian cafe opened. Pellegrini’s, located on Bourke Street in the middle of Melbourne’s Central Business District, brought to fruition 30 years of espresso-loving immigrants making Melbourne their home. My father, who was 20 at the time, remembers that opening distinctly. “There was nothing like it, there had been nothing like it before,” he says. “It was the beginning of Melbourne becoming what it is.”
Pellegrini’s is still open, with its red mid-century signage, checkered floor, and a menu and atmosphere that have remained unchanged for more than 60 years. If it established Melbourne’s cafe culture, its longevity reflects another key facet of the city’s dining persona: The persistence of old-school family-run places that cater to the same people decade after decade. These restaurants used to be everywhere in the U.S., but we’ve lost many of them over the past half-century. It’s not just a loss of history; these restaurants are surrogate family who know your tastes and the names of your kids.
I’ve always been a sucker for the kinds of fantasy novels wherein a hidden world is revealed, just beneath the surface. Melbourne has a lot of that. Many of the most interesting places to eat and drink are down alleyways, which wind through the guts of the city’s center and grow odd little businesses like weeds.
Down a lane in the central business district, there’s an unassuming door with a stairway leading up off the street. Up the stairs is a ’70s-era room with faded posters of Europe on the wall and a blackboard menu listing the day’s specials: pasta, grilled fish, stewed rabbit with rosemary and olives. This is the Waiter’s Club, an Italian restaurant that has served as a hangout for journalists, gangsters, and — yes — waiters, for 70 or so years. It’s also one of the restaurants that raised me. There are a few.
A mile or so away in Collingwood, Jim’s Greek Tavern is easier to find, but in its own way it feels even more like an insider’s club. On the way to your table, the host will walk you by a large glass refrigerator case filled with meat and fish: Tiny pink lamb chops, coils of octopus, glistening whole snapper, carefully arranged translucent pinkish brains. That trip past the meat case is the closest Jim’s comes to a menu. After you’re seated, a brusque waiter, usually of the older Greek variety, will come by the table. “What do you want?” he’ll bark at you. “You want some dips? Some meat? Fish? Eh?” At that point the negotiation starts. You try to remember things you saw in the refrigerated case, and he decides what you’re worthy of eating. Everything is grilled simply, with olive oil, herbs, and maybe some lemon. You get pretty much whatever they decide you get.
“Do you have wine?” you might ask.
“Nah. Not really.” But then later, once you’ve earned your waiter’s approval, he’ll ask if you prefer white or red and then plunk down a half-full carafe. “You drink this. You like it? I’ll bring you another.”
This is very Greek, but it’s also very Australian, like you're being served by a gruff but loving family member. A few years back while eating at Jim’s, our waiter was scolding us and feeding us so parentally that my stepfather said to him, “I might just start calling you Mum.”
The Waiter’s Club, Jim’s, and other places like them are the foundation of Melbourne’s eating life, one in which hospitality means something far more personal than the transactional nature of business. The city’s dining history is also its present, not for nostalgia's sake but because there’s continuity. Traditions aren’t easily discarded; they’re a source of pride. I feel looked-after in these restaurants in a way I’ve only experienced in the most service-oriented fine dining establishments in the U.S.
Over the 60 years since Pellegrini’s opened, its influence — and the influence of the many immigrant restaurants that opened after 1954 — has meant great coffee, and it’s meant something much more. From early morning until late night, Melbourne’s sidewalks are clogged with tables and chairs and people eating and drinking and sipping lattes as trams clang down the streets. Out in front of the Vic Markets, people carry their bratwursts and croissants and share happy conversation before they do the week’s shopping. The cafes of Melbourne are not just places where great coffee happens. They’re places where breakfast happens, where lunch happens, where mid-afternoon drinks and people-watching happen. Woven into the fabric of the city as surely as the tram tracks that criss-cross its streets and the wrought iron that spindles across the facades of its Victorian row houses, the cafes of Melbourne are where life happens.
If Pellegrini’s is Melbourne’s original cafe, Mario’s, located on Fitzroy’s main drag, was the next great leap forward. Opened in 1986, Mario’s was (and is) an Italian cafe with the bearing of a classy restaurant. They had all-day breakfast and really good coffee and carefully made bowls of pasta. Owner Mario Maccarone told Gourmet Traveller earlier this year: "We elevated the idea of what a cafe could be… We looked a bit like a restaurant, but you could still come in and get Vegemite on toast.” Take away the Vegemite and Maccarone sounds like a lot of American restaurateurs circa 2012, but he’s talking about 1986. Mario’s turned Melbourne cafes into places where serious food happened, and where breakfast was as important as dinner.
It also primed Fitzroy’s Brunswick Street to become the cafe capital of the universe. There are a few neighborhoods in Australia that might try to claim that title, but my money’s on Fitzroy, which also puts Williamsburg and Silver Lake to shame on the hipster scale. You can’t walk two feet in Fitzroy without stumbling over another cafe serving pumpkin, pomegranate, crispy kale, and goat cheese on toast, another craft cocktail bar with a more exclusive cocktail bar upstairs that you have to buzz into, another shop selling gorgeous clothes you can’t afford. My brother lives above a disgustingly trendy barber shop that might as well be called “Bespoke,” and a women’s clothing store called “Who Invited Her,” which simultaneously makes me want to applaud and claw my own eyes out.
Mario’s and its neon cursive sign are still an iconic part of the neighborhood, 30 years after its opening. And all around it are evolutions, cafe menus which reflect an ever-broader array of cultures. There are more Greeks in Melbourne than any city in the world outside of Greece. Refugees from the Lebanese civil war flowed into the city during the ’70s and ’80s. In the 45 years since the repeal of the “White Australia” policy (yes, it was really called that), the city’s Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese and Indian populations have swelled. Somehow, despite the very real racism faced by each of these groups as they arrived, their food has become integrated into the life of Melbourne in a way I’m only just beginning to see in big American cities.
Those Greek and Middle Eastern and Asian influences have been folded into Melbourne’s cultural identity, and they reverberate through the kaleidoscopic flavors found on its best cafe and restaurant menus. From Thai-style omelettes and creative congees to chicken and kaffir lime scotch eggs, breakfast alone in this city alone could kick the asses of America’s best seasonal small plates.
Nostalgia often dictates that I spend much of my Melbourne time eating in those restaurants that raised me, but this time around I ventured further, and found whole new reasons for prodigious hometown pride. Down one of those magical back laneways in the city, Tipo 00 embodies the rich inheritance that all those Italian immigrants gave to modern Australian cooking. Its small room was packed with diners at 3 p.m. on a Saturday, drinking wine and eating delicate handmade pappardelle with braised rabbit, hazelnuts and marjoram; light but foresty, hauntingly delicious.
At Epocha in Carlton, owner and maitre d Angie Giannakodakis greets guests with hugs, her slick black suit and spiky hair as timelessly stylish as the antique fireplace in the dining room. Located in a Victorian terrace house overlooking one of the city’s stately parks, the restaurant’s friendly formality mixes with a purposeful celebration of Melbourne’s immigrant roots: The UK might show up in a black pudding that comes alongside the rabbit loin; a green sauce-bedecked lamb shoulder — basically a heap of fat and juices — channels the love of the thousands of Greek grandmothers who live in the city. I didn’t find newness in Melbourne so much as progression, a careful amplification of what came before, which seemed oddly revolutionary. The American hunger for tossing out the old and worshipping the new is thrilling, but so much is lost in the process.
While eating and drinking at Gerald’s, a cluttered storefront wine bar in Carlton North, the owner Gerald Diffey plonked down beside me and my brother and shared his fiercely held, basically proletariat beliefs about wine. “I don’t really care how preciously you fondled the grapes, or where it was aged — who gives a fuck?” Diffey said amicably. “People forget that a lot of the pleasure and magic of wine is that it tastes good and gets you pissed.” Sitting with a rowdy, foul-mouthed wine evangelist while drinking a casually poured, mind-bending riesling, I felt as though I had slipped into the life I might have led, had it not been taken from me (or me from it).
It would be foolish to suggest that I’ve never had a meal in America that felt spiritually similar to what Melbourne offers so effortlessly. Portland sometimes comes close to finding that groove. Grand Central Market here in L.A. has some commonality with the Vic Markets, though the Vic Markets aren’t burdened with the same strains of gentrification that plague GCM. Bacchanal in New Orleans, the wine shop with a sprawling, cluttered backyard where you can sit for hours drinking wine, eating cheese, and listening to music, feels more like home to me than almost anywhere else in the country, even though I have no personal connection to New Orleans.
Most of the literal interpretations of Melbourne I’ve come across here — the meat pie shops, the Australian cafes — are a little sad, though one or two in Brooklyn come close to the real thing. Sqirl in Los Angeles, a relaxed cafe celebrated for its creative rice bowls and lovely baked goods, is basically a very good Melbourne cafe on a corner in East Hollywood. Unsurprisingly, chef and owner Jessica Koslow spent time working at a bakery in Melbourne.
I’m sure that a food-obsessed American reading this might be able to come up with a plethora of other examples, places, and things that sound similar to the things I’m claiming as unique to my hometown. It’s true that the differences are subtle — food as a way of life, a birthright, a source of pleasure, and a shared culture rather than a means of constructing identity or differentiating status. But to me they feel profound.
Don’t get me wrong: Melbourne has plenty of crap, artifice, and hyped-up places that may or may not deserve the hype. There’s a casino full of restaurants with international superstar chef names above the doors. Ben Shrewy forages his way through every big-name food magazine, and his restaurant, Attica, is currently at number 33 on the World’s 50 Best list, serving dishes made with wallaby blood, as well as a fine-dining take on…avocado toast. I’m sure Attica is great; I’d love to eat there one day. But my hometown’s greatest culinary gift, the thing I miss the most, the thing I’ve been looking for ever since I left, is the city’s underlying attitude: That food is just a part of everyday life and, damn, isn’t everyday life wonderful?
Am I overthinking this? Maybe I should write an essay instead about how sick I am of tasting menus. About all the things servers do that mildly annoy me. Maybe I should just move back.
My brother has moved back to Melbourne, as has my sister, and my stepfather. My stepfather tells a story about something someone said to him in the leadup to our move to America. He was 30 at the time, and our move would be his first trip outside of Australia. This friend of his, who had spent some time in the U.S., said: You’ll go there and everything will seem familiar. You’ll understand the language. The food will taste somewhat similar. The way people deliver the news on TV, the way people sing at rock shows, the way people drink at bars: It will all feel comfortably recognizable. And then after you’ve been there for a while, you’ll begin to understand the real difference between America and Australia, and that difference is vastly more profound than anything you might point to on the surface. And then you’ll realize you are as alien to that place as you might be on Mars.
I’m not sure on which planet I belong. Otherness is such a part of my identity that if I were to return to Australia now, I don’t know who I’d be. The dominant narrative when it comes to immigrant stories is the struggles faced upon arriving in a new land, and the confusion of trying to survive while looking and speaking and thinking differently. In those regards my experience can’t begin to compare to people leaving their homes in China or South America or Africa or even Europe. I’m white. I speak the language; I look the part. But the thing I share with immigrants and expats of all stripes is the intense feeling of otherness that comes with missing home, the belonging to different earth, different air, a different ocean. Leaving is the key event of your life — you spend all the time after trying to reconcile the person you were when you belonged somewhere with the displaced person you’ve become. It’s this very condition that pushes people to recreate a taste of home in their new lives. It’s the exact dynamic that created so much of the food culture I’ve spent my life longing for.
I’ve continued to displace myself, over and over again, moving away from cities once they become comfortable and familiar. My last move, from Atlanta to L.A., was the most wrenching since leaving Melbourne. I came to a city I’d never visited, where I knew no one, to take a high-profile job as a complete unknown. “I’m not from here” is at the core of who I am.
When I got back to L.A. after my summer trip to Melbourne, I had a conversation with my mother, another installment in the long line of conversations we’ve been having for 25 years, the one that goes: Why did we leave? Should we go back? What is it that we’re missing so very much? What is the difference?
And my mother told me something I’d never heard her say before: “America was settled mainly before the Industrial Revolution, and it was all about pioneering, all about rugged individualism. Australia has this reputation of being settled by convicts, but the truth is that most of the country is built on immigration that came later, after the Industrial Revolution. These were working people, and they were familiar with the mindset that came along with that. Unions! Solidarity! America was built on going out and conquering the West, all by your fucking self. Australia was built on the idea that you look out for your mates.”
That’s what I miss. The comfort of living in a place where the underlying principle is that we look out for one another. If that ethos leads to good coffee and grilled lamb chops, all the better.
In America we read the blogs, we obsess about which chef is leaving what job and what storefront will become the next hot restaurant. We stand in line for rainbow-glazed ramen burger bagels. But in the end, our newfound food obsessions founder on that with which America has always been concerned: Commerce and status. I see — especially in the food world — an urge to connect, to put more stock in pleasure, to find some sort of fellowship in our dining rituals. Our seating is increasingly communal. Practically all of our semi-upscale eating is now done off of shared plates, in an attempt to force togetherness. These gestures are genuine, and yet they’re received as fashion.
Culture is so interconnected. Maybe Australians can have their carefree, joyful attitude around food and life because they get so much paid vacation, because childcare is affordable, because there’s no gun violence, because there’s not so much pressure, because the great Australian dream is to have a house and some kids and a few good friends. Because ambition is undervalued. Because life isn’t as scary.
In Melbourne, the look-after-your-mates ethos, the pubs and cafes, have created a food culture as charming as Europe’s, as exciting as America’s, as varied as Asia’s. A place where the past and the future are often friends, where community feels tangible, where it’s okay to relax. No wonder it haunts me.
And yet — I love living in L.A. I love my work, and the people and places I write about. One of my greatest joys and achievements has been conquering the West, all by my fucking self. So maybe I am American after all. And maybe it’s too much to ask America to learn how to blend its rugged individualism with a sense of community. In the wake of the most divisive presidential election in modern history (and its pro-consumerist, anti-multiculturalist results), this seems like a particularly ludicrous thing to hope for. Maybe I’ll just have to make do with avocado toast.
On this trip, as with every Melbourne trip, I went and stood in the throng at the Vic Markets and bought myself a bratwurst and a flat white. I ate standing at the counter that runs along the inside wall of the grand stone entrance. I felt embraced by those walls, by the spirit of the immigrants who have passed through over the last century, by the otherness and longing for home that has inspired so much good food and good living. I gave thanks for that longing, for the German guy in 1976 whose desire for a taste of home made the bratwurst in my hand possible. I gave thanks to Melbourne and also to America, for making me who I am.
Eat Your Way Through Melbourne
Queen Victoria Market: Corner of Elizabeth & Victoria Streets, qvm.com.au
Pellegrini’s: 66 Bourke Street, +61 3 9662 1885, no website
The Waiter’s Club: 20 Meyers Place, +61 3 9650 1508, no website
Jim’s Greek Tavern: 32 Johnston Street, +61 3 9419 3827, no website
Mario’s Cafe: 303 Brunswick Street, +61 3 9417 3343, marioscafe.com.au
Tipo 00: 361 Little Bourke Street, +61 3 9942 3946, tipo00.com.au
Epocha: 49 Rathdowne Street, +61 3 9036 4949, epocha.com.au
Gerald’s Bar: 386 Rathdowne Street, +61 3 9349 4748, geraldsbar.com.au
Besha Rodell is the restaurant critic for LA Weekly.
Jesse Marlow is based in Melbourne, Australia. His work has appeared in numerous local and international editorial publications over the last 20 years. He is a member of both the international street photographers collective in-public.com and M.33, Melbourne.
Edited by: Meghan McCarron
Copy Editor: Rachel Kreiter