Perhaps it's the soundtrack. Richard Clapton's "Girls on the Avenue", Stevie Wright's "Evie", Midnight Oil's "Blue Sky Mine". But there's also nostalgia with the location. The sleepy strip of mostly single-storey shops in West Footscray feels more small-town 1970s than Melbourne suburb-on-the-rise. Most probably it's just that Harley & Rose, the first venture by McConnell alumni Josh Murphy and Rory Cowcher, has landed with such confidence that it feels like it's been here forever, slinging wood-fired pizza, Meatsmith charcuterie and minimal-intervention wine since Skyhooks were in the charts.
The circa-1960s Modernist bank building plays its part. It was a pizza restaurant before Murphy and Cowcher rode into town, bringing Projects of Imagination with them to do the fit-out. It's quirky now, with blond timber banquettes, acres of beige canvas blinds, safety glass, red neon in the front window and red lighting in the bathrooms, a parquetry floor and a creamy yellow paint job. It has a sort of 1960s suburban bank-clerk chic.
There's nothing retro about the food. Murphy and Cowcher have pulled together a solid list of approachable, shareable dishes that are trend conscious without being annoyingly on song.
Fans of Fitzroy's Builders Arms Hotel will be pleased to see the cod-roe dip make a creamy, salty appearance here, accompanied by shiny, crisp-edged house-made focaccia. The dip's customised with curly parsley and a dusting of dried fermented spicy peppers.
Other good snacks challenge the dip for star attraction.
Ocean trout, cured in sugar, salt and coriander seed and then smoked, arrives robustly flavoured and thrillingly textured under a mustard and Grand Marnier emulsion, with grated horseradish and a liberal scatter of dried dill. Thick slices of green tomatoes are coated in a tapioca and rice flour batter (the batter recipe borrowed from Lee Ho Fook's Victor Liong), fried and served with crème fraîche. There's Louisiana hot sauce sitting in the caddy on the table. Use it.
Another simple but spot-on tomato dish sees heirloom tomatoes grated to a pulp, seasoned and oiled and then lightly smoked. They're teamed with stracciatella and garnished with dried purple basil leaves. It manages to be both comforting and refreshing.
The wood-fired pizza oven is put to good use. Plate-sized pies are delivered with just a smattering of char around the edges of a base made from a sourdough starter with a little yeast – more chewy New York-style than Neapolitan.
Toppings include a pipi, onion, cream and thyme combination that's rich and sweet with an attractive briny finish (the onions are cooked gently with cream and clam juice). The handsome diavola has slices of dry, hot salami, San Marzano tomatoes and smoked scamorza, with slivers of pickled jalapeño adding colour and a faint slow burn. The combination matches well with the crust's slight vinegary, fermented flavour.
It's all good drinking food and there are plenty of good things to drink. Another ex-McConnell employee, the cheerful Mark Williamson, is manager here, and in charge of the list. He's got the modern family-friendly bistro brief just right, both with the booze and the service.
His cellar packs a lot of variety into six pages. It's Australian-biased with the occasional sortie into France and Italy. There's good, well-priced minimal intervention stuff from the likes of SC Pannell, Hochkirch and Ochota Barrels alongside smooth French operators such as Le Fou pinot noir and Christophe et Fils Chablis. The beer list leans local, too, with everything Victorian except a few outliers, including the complex, soured Cleansing Ale from Tasmania's Two Metres Tall.
The menu has some heft to it, too. Lamb meatballs, fragrant with cumin, pack a little chilli heat that's tempered with the accompanying risoni, cucumber, mint and yoghurt. Meanwhile, the H&R version of cacio e pepe, made with spaghetti from local pasta maker Alligator, is rich with egg yolks and a mix of Grana Padano and pecorino. You'd come back for it.
The tiramisù is also hefty. It's a classic of its kind – not too soggy or boozy, the mix of Strega, dark rum and vanilla Galliano keeping the flavours firmly, safely Italian.
With its seasoned operators and wine and food smarts, Harley & Rose is a sure sign Melbourne's west is gentrifying. Since it's unpretentious, hospitable, tasty and well-priced gentrification, surely it's the kind to get behind.