Gerald Diffey has worked at and with some of Victoria's great names - Karen Martini, Rita Macali, Tansy Good and Stefano de Pieri among them - and has spread his affable charm wherever he's appeared. But it's at his small bar in Rathdowne Street, Carlton, propped next door to the pizza cacophony that is La Porchetta, that he seems to have distilled all that experience into one idiosyncratic, unique and thoroughly enjoyable package.
Gerald's Bar is not about crack mixology or voluminous lists of benchmark labels. The half-net curtains in the front window immediately put paid to any notions of cutting-edge design. Instead there's a stylish hominess to the surrounds. A turntable and valve-amp sit behind the bar under shelves bearing curious objets trouvés and a compact, carefully curated collection of quality booze that make this everything a grown-up could want in a watering hole.
One of Diffey's more recent ports of call before opening the bar was as sommelier at Stefano's, and the swarms of off-duty sommeliers and wine writers here speak well of the sort of things you're likely to find on-pour on any given day. Chefs, too, have claimed it as their own, whether it's Bar Lourinhã's Matt McConnell propping up the bar or Heston Blumenthal dropping by for a cheeky glass of absinthe downed to the strains of The Specials.
The Melbourne Wine Room's Karen Martini first worked with Diffey as a young apprentice, and describes him as a most likeable character with a story for every occasion. "He has always been cool," she says. "Maybe it's the constant mischievous twinkle in his eye that makes him so very welcoming a barman." Stefano de Pieri, another regular, likes the way the place feels. "You're surrounded by the objects of Gerald's past," he says. "Whether it's a pack of cards or a leaflet from the labour movement, they're displayed without affectation because they're Gerald."
Perhaps Gerald's Bar's true charm lies in its inclusive nature. Everything on the wine list - a meticulously selected mix of Old and New World labels that steers clear of the obvious and the overpriced - is potentially available by the glass (whatever is ordered first becomes the by-the-glass selection for that evening). The food, cooked by Gerald, is simple, comforting and inexpensive and the eclectic vinyl selection always seems to include at least one track that will have you counting the beat. Best of all, Gerald's is a place where you feel as comfortable (and as welcome) on your own as in a group. And that is the sign of a bar that understands the true nature of bar-dom.
Gerald's Bar, 386 Rathdowne St, Carlton North, Vic, (03) 9349 4748
WORDS MICHAEL HARDEN PHOTOGRAPHY TIM JAMES
This article is from the September 2009 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.