How Australian dining began to shift in the 1960s

Illustration by Tom Bingham

Illustration by Tom Bingham

The 1960s woke Australia up to espresso, international cuisine and wine by the cask. Novelist Frank Moorhouse recalls a time of louche banquets with Sydney’s bohemian set.

My palate awakened when I left my country-town home to become a cadet journalist in Sydney and first ate Greek food. Until then all my eating experience was of my mother's basic English cooking - healthy, but, well, basic.

In the '60s there were a number of authentic, cheap Greek restaurants in Sydney where journalists, detectives, sex workers (back then called streetwalkers), university students and, of course, Greeks ate. There was Andrews, the Athenian, the Iliad, the New Hellas, the Greek Club, and Diethnes. When I first ate chicken, egg and lemon soup, cabbage rolls, or Greek-style lamb and eggplant, with a bottle of house wine (I had never tasted wine), I knew I had left home.

I also encountered Italian food for the first time. Beppi's opened in 1956. Legend has it that Beppi Polese gathered mussels in a dinghy, scraping them off the pylons of the Spit Bridge, because he couldn't buy them. The inspiring late Professor Henry Mayer marked student papers while dining there. Beppi died this year, aged 90, but his restaurant lives on.

Then came espresso coffee and eating breakfast in a café.

Ivan Repin (Repin's), and Teresa and Reg Cahill (Cahills) had introduced the coffee shop to Sydney in the 1930s, but in the '60s Australia encountered the espresso and cappuccino.

In 1961 the Italian company Faema launched a pump-based espresso machine designed to produce a consistent cup of coffee regardless of who worked the machine - or so they thought. The skills of the barista were yet to be recognised and the occupation yet to be named in English.

By the '60s, the Cahill family had changed their coffee-shop chain into ethnically themed restaurants. They had 25 restaurants decorated with props, wall hangings, photographs, posters, and menus promising flavours from the South Sea Islands, Holland, Tudor England, Bavaria, the Vienna Woods, and so on. Ye gods.

In a way, these restaurants represented the changing demographics of Australia through post- World War II immigration. Hundreds of thousands of migrants, mostly from the UK, Europe and the Balkans, poured into the country.

In the '60s, for men about town the backyard barbecue was institutionalised in the city steak house (as, I suppose, it still is). The best known were the Angus Steak Cave, opened by Johnnie Walker in 1962, and the Lantern - which was slightly more bohemian - where oysters and large steaks with peppercorn sauce or strong mustards were eaten and big reds competitively drunk.

The wine cask - the sealed plastic bag in a box - arrived in the mid-'60s to replace the glass halfgallon flagon.

I recall a few attempts at fine dining from my '60s days organised by younger members of what was known then as the Push - a bohemian group loosely gathered around libertarian philosophical attitudes propounded by Professor John Anderson at the University of Sydney (who died in 1962 aged 69) - "freedom in love is the condition of all other freedoms". Students and academic libertarians from the university had spread downtown to a hotel called the Royal George where they attracted bohemians and people from the arts. I met them there in the 1960s.

The strict libertarians weren't into fine dining - too bourgeois. The fine-dining crowd was led by the beautiful, young, outspoken Gillian Burnett, an English honours student, and at the time my lover (we were all beautiful, young, and outspoken back then). One of her favourite excursions into fine dining was for us to go to an upmarket restaurant at Watson's Bay where, on her instructions, we would order Chateaubriand.

My other memory is of Gillian, myself, and others organising a banquet. The guests included Push people and other bohemians from around the arts - there were perhaps 18 or 20 of us who sat down (no one quite remembers now).

We used the dining room of the beautifully furnished heritage home of the absent aunt, an artist, of budding film director Michael Thornhill. We shared out the tasks of bringing together the food and preparing it.

Ken Quinnell (a smart young "filmnik" from the WEA) and I did the cheeses - we knew very little about cheese so we bought any cheese we could find. There would've been cheddar - Bega, Coon - Danish blue Castello, perhaps even Gorgonzola.

The girls who prepared the main courses were remarkable. I remember a goose - the first any of us had ever tasted - and jugged hare. God knows where they found a goose and a hare. Traditionally, jugged hare is made from a whole hare, cut into pieces, marinated and cooked with red wine, juniper berries, and onions, the sauce blended with the hare's liver and blood, and cream. It was also the first hare I had eaten and it would be some years before I tried it again.

Dr Rocky Meyers, the Push doctor, and his young woman friend, June Wilson, arrived dressed in costume from My Fair Lady. They had mistakenly thought it was a fancy dress party.

As usual, we drank too much. I recall little of the conversation. There were mock toasts and speeches.

At some time late in the evening Sandra Grimes, an 18-year-old anthropology honours student (who had been my lover), sat on a Champagne glass, and Rocky and a couple of helpers had to take her to his surgery to stitch up and dress the wound.

As the night went on diners stalked off. There were angry arguments, there were jealousies. There were urgent, irresistible sexual liaisons.

I recall that finally, in the small hours of the morning, there were two of us left - the other person was Norma Crinion. Norma was a sophisticate, an older person. She was the kept mistress (as it was known back then) of an important man, but she enjoyed the louche company of the Push.

I see her calmly smoking amid the litter of the table, contemplating the wreckage, and then smiling to me slumped on my elbows at the other end of the table. Some time later in life she became my lover and taught me how to make a Martini.

At the end of the '60s there awaited an even greater gastronomic awakening. Nouvelle cuisine arrived in the early '70s - a style of French cooking that emphasised the use of fresh ingredients imaginatively prepared and which moved away from the traditional French food with heavy sauces towards natural flavours.

For us it arrived at Bon Gout in Sydney, run by Tony and Gay Bilson, both destined to be two of Australia's best chefs. Thankfully, at Bon Gout there were classic French dishes as well.

By the '70s my group had risen in the world from thinking ourselves as being the intellectual insurgents to being connected and better paid. I remember a dear friend, Richard Hall, then Prime Minister Whitlam's private secretary, boasting over a long, French nouvelle cuisine lunch - in Richard's case with chips - "We are the masters now."

Not for long. But we were dining better, as was most of Australia. We were the diners now.


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