Transformer is quite possibly the restaurant meat-free Melbourne has been waiting for. It's the Vegie Bar gone haute. A stunning design courtesy of Breathe Architects has turned the double-fronted warehouse into a gloriously mood-lit, plant-strewn space wrapped around an interior courtyard. It's date-night territory, far from the clang and yoga pants of Vegie Bar.
A compact wine list flirts with the organic without going steady; cocktails are full of snips from the garden; and the menu doesn't bludgeon diners over the head with mission statements.
Chef Luke Florence knows how to use tofu but he's sidestepped any mock-meat products. Around half the menu is vegan - a spelt and seed steamed bao wrapped around fried tofu with spicy mayo might win a few converts - while his richly textured salads show that vegetables are the new norm.
When Laki Papadopoulos and Mark Price opened the Vegie Bar on Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, Bob Hawke was Prime Minister of Australia and Home and Away had just gone to air. It's taken them 27 years to open Transformer, the grown-up version of their perennially humming vegetarian and vegan café, but it's not like they've been idle.
In the interim the pair has opened Rice Queen, St Jude's Cellars, and Panama Dining Room. They're sticklers for a certain square kilometre of Fitzroy real estate, including this run-down former transformer factory behind the Vegie Bar.
It could have been a raw-food restaurant, Papadopoulos admits. "I really got into that for a while a few years ago. But I found it impossible to sustain. The gloss wore off really fast." These days, he prefers "flexitarian".
"Life's a bit too short to have hard-and-fast rules about what we eat. It's a bit like the weather - we all change. The brief in the end was just good food."
Transformer serves the sort of food Papadopoulos says he searched for fruitlessly on an eating tour of California and New York last year.
"A lot of vegetarian food has pretty poor standards. We actually found the best vego options were at meat restaurants. Hopefully here you won't notice there's no meat."
Transformer Fitzroy, 99 Rose St, Fitzroy, Vic, (03) 9419 2022, transformerfitzroy.com.au