*I’m kidding myself that I get a whole heap of hits from beyond this fatal shore and so feel it necessary to give some background to this three-post series. Humour me.
Lygon St is the main thoroughfare in a restaurant-entertainment precinct in Carlton, an inner-Melbourne suburb. Historically, Carlton has always retained its essential cosmopolitan feel through many influxes and evolutions. Probably the most significant of these influxes was that of large numbers of post-war Italian immigrants. They settled and soon opened shops and restaurants to cater for this immigrant market.
Added to this is Lygon St’s proximity to Melbourne University, which means that the area has always had what Paul McCartney might call a “studenty” feel. The bohemian element in Carlton and its neighbouring inner suburbs were very keen on the fine but relatively inexpensive cuisine available there. And as with all such things, word spreads, the mainstream catches up after a few years, and so do the prices. Urban Geography 101.
**“Lygon St Limbo” was a refrain from a song about Carlton by 70’s Melbourne band Skyhooks. The title of this post is a play on that.
I never go to Italian restaurants by choice. It’s always someone else’s idea. It wasn’t always like this, but after a while, you just don’t want to encourage them by going back. Having access to top-class Italian cuisine at home via TLOML’s excellent cooking, and the odd passable effort myself, means a meal at an Italian restaurant has always felt a little like a busman’s holiday anyway.
But there are other reasons: I’ve never felt like I’ve been treated like shit at any Thai; Indian; Mexican; Balinese; Spanish; Turkish; Greek; Lebanese; or French restaurant. Or pub bistro for that matter. Not as a matter of deliberate policy, anyway. But at Italian restaurants, things have been a little different.
Now, I think I’d better qualify my position before anyone gets the wrong idea. My wife’s father was Italian. My longest and deepest friendships are with blokes of Italian descent. I love Italy, its language, its culture, its history and its people. But there is an international stereotype, ie Italians are great in the restaurant trade, that needs debunking; - you know, like Australians are laconic, easy-going and always get behind the underdog. And you can expect a future post on THAT load of codswallop too.
But back to Lygon St. There are restaurants on Lygon St’s east side in converted terrace houses. With waiters out the front touting. You’d reckon a good restaurant wouldn’t need to lower itself to this sort of shit, especially since these blokes have about as much savoir faire as the ones you used to see outside porno cinemas. But it seems to be something of a tradition.
You walk past. They ask if you’re interested in coming in. You say no thanks, or some other polite form of refusal, probably because you’ve already eaten at a decent restaurant, but they have to dish out smart-arse remarks or abuse, sotto voce. Sometimes not so sotto, either. It’s a pretty unpleasant and unnecessary gauntlet to be running, coming from a restaurant of all establishments.
Anyway, here’s a case to better illustrate the total experience: about ten years ago, I went to a work night out at a café-restaurant in a lane off Lygon St. One of our colleagues knew the manager, was a frequent diner there, and recommended it.
And because you’ll often see sickening obsequiousness in Italian restaurants whenever the staff are welcoming someone they know, or a celebrity of any magnitude, or a party that includes one or more attractive women, I thought having two out of those three was bound to give us some protection from the usual off-hand arrogance that I’ve experienced. This time, I thought we might be the recipients of some fawning, instead of observing it in stark contrast to the treatment I've come to expect.
All of which probably made my expectations for a good night out unrealistically high.
After arriving and saying a few hellos, I headed down to a nearby bottle shop to get a half a dozen stubbies of light beer.
When I got back, the waiter was ready to take our order. Some dithered over their choices, as people do. The waiter was impatient, abrupt and sarcastic. He responded to some orders by repeating the choice back to the person face thrust forward, lips in a protruding pursed O and eyes bulging out as if he couldn’t believe the person had finally made up their mind. I couldn’t wait for the arsehole to fuck off. But just before he finally did, he reached over and grabbed my stubbies, sighing histrionically.
The meals were okay I suppose, and offered much nostalgia for any former stamp collectors among us. In terms of the size of the portions, I mean. And during the courses, this waiter was asked politely, when we could get his attention, for the sorts of things that waiters are always asked for during a restaurant meal: you know, more garlic bread; another bottle of wine etc.
And each time he was called, he stopped dead in his tracks on his way somewhere else with raised eyebrows and eyes rolling skyward like it was a big hassle for him. And then he kept making a fuss about the huge favour he was doing everyone each time he returned with something. And we were one of only three occupied tables in the whole fucking joint.
But as big a pain in the arse as he was, we managed to shrug off his idiosyncrasies. It was going to take more than this hunk of shit to spoil a good night out, we reasoned.
And more was exactly what I got when I asked him if I could please have another of my stubbies.