What do you think of when you hear the word cafeteria? The salad bar at Sizzler? The meatballs at the end of a punishing IKEA trip? The Pizza Hut buffet in its heyday? A sad school camp schnitzel?
Cafeterias just aren't much of a thing in Australia. At least not anymore. And when you do see one, it's not generally the sort of place you'd write home about. But Shannon Martinez, chef and owner of the recently reopened Smith & Deli (and the soon-to-reopen Smith & Daughters) in Melbourne's Collingwood, wants to bring them back.
"Everyone loves [a cafeteria], I don't care what anyone says," Martinez says. "It doesn't have to be an event like going to a restaurant – just get a tray, load it up, you're in and out in 15 minutes."
"I'm trying to make them cool again, you know?" says Martinez. "Apartments are getting smaller, kitchens are getting smaller, people are getting takeaway more, so I wanted to provide an accessible option for people who just didn't want to eat take-out every night."
Martinez has been making food more accessible for much of her career: as arguably Australia's best-known proponent of vegan cooking, she's devoted to the idea that vegan food should be delicious and attractive to anyone, regardless of the diet they follow. And she's been doing it since well before fast-food shops were selling Impossible burgers, and long before big-chain supermarkets had entire aisles dedicated to plant-based meat alternatives.
Her completely vegan restaurant, Smith & Daughters, has had a vast and dedicated following since opening in 2014. It's the same story for Smith & Deli, which opened the following year. Last year, Martinez announced she would be temporarily closing both businesses, and relocating them from Fitzroy to next-door Collingwood, to exist under the one roof. The result is being billed as one of the world's biggest vegan hubs, and both businesses, each one a dining destination in its own right, are together set to consolidate their position as Melbourne's nexus for all things plant-based.
Deli, which reopened last month, was the first cab off the rank. (Daughters is due to open back up again next week.) It takes everything that regulars loved about the old spot – it's still a New York deli-meets-bodega inspired vegan sandwich shop and providore – but thanks to its new space's larger size, it's added a bevy of new elements.
Whether you're eating in or taking away, the cafeteria is the new focal point. There are two options: a regular deli plate, which gets you a main and two sides, and a large deli plate that comes with an extra side. (Additional sides can be added to both). The menu changes each day, but a main might mean a half-serving of one of Smith & Deli's revered sandwiches (options include a riff on a classic club sandwich, or The Wiggum: salt and pepper tofu with barbecue sauce), or a tagine, or a vegan take on sweet and sour chicken. Sides range from glazed carrots, to quinoa salads, to vegan mac and cheese. And it's open from breakfast through to dinner. The classic line-up of sandwiches, deli goods, and vegan doughnuts (there's cinnamon or jam, with a different glazed special every day) is all still here.
If you're dining in, help yourself from the custom-built Strangelove Soda machine, take advantage of the beers and wines on tap, or order something off Smith & Deli's new wine list, which predominantly features old world wines (the spirits line-up is more local).
There's also a new bottle shop, and an expanded vegan grocery offering. Alongside your usual fruit and vegies, there's a deep and sometimes obscure array of plant-based products to enhance your at-home cooking.
"I've decided to specialise more in vegan products that maybe a lot of vegans wouldn't know are out there," says Martinez. All those things that I use in my cooking – vegan shrimp paste, fish sauce – lots of things that I use in my books that maybe people aren't sure where to get."
Fridges are filled with ready-made meals and vegan cheeses and ice-creams. The coffee machine is locked and loaded, with every imaginable alt-milk ready to go. In addition to pantry staples, the shelves are also filled with items from Smith & Deli's popular merch range, featuring designs by Martinez's friends including local tattoo artist Clare Clarity. There's also a new homewares line that plays on Martinez's signature dark aesthetic. It's a tight line-up so far – tea towels, coasters, measuring cups – but expect the range to grow.
Smith & Deli's new home looks markedly different to its old one. The sleek space, by Rosa & Co Fitouts, has an industrial feel that's softened by warm colours and furnishings. It's also big, and clearly designed with Smith & Deli's growth in mind. With Smith & Daughters reopening in the same site next week, this feels like a new chapter for Martinez.
"I'm doing all the things that I've wanted to do for ages, and finally bringing the business to the level that I want it to be [at]," says Martinez. "I feel like it must be when you're a parent, and your kids all move out and they finally all come back home for Christmas."