31 January, 2008

Lygon St Purgatory I

*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.


mooiness said...

Lygon St does not have a monopoly on snobby Italian waiters. Some have a very strange power complex which is even more glaring when the food is shite.

Looking fwd to the next installment of this story. :)

Lad Litter said...

Thanks for the validation, Moo! Glad to hear it isn't just me.

Andrew said...

My partner certainly did not enjoy his night out at Carlton.

A few years ago we decided to eat at an Italian restaurant in Carlton. We walked the street and found the touts awful. Worse than those in King's Cross. We ended up having a fine meal at University Hotel, and we took friends back there a few months later. So I totally agree with your point. Generally, restaurant staff are so nice these days (especially for the pay they get), there is no reason for us to put up with crap.

Ms Smack said...

Show us your tits!

Crushed said...

Now stubbies, THAT's Australian. We only drink cans, really.

The street map is very, well, what we would blanketly call colonial, all straight blocks, all laid out neatly.

But aside from the fact your cars on the wrong side of the road (I thought you drove on our side in Aus), the picture could be Great Charles Street.

Ed said...

Hi there Ladlitter, this is so reminiscent of my experiences with Lygon street Italian eateries. The only time I ever seem to end up eating 'Italian' is when I'm with a fussy friend of mine who won't eat any Asian or Indian food. And 9 times out of 10 either the food or the service has been crap. In fact I'd almost always chose a Thai or Nepalese restaurant on Lygon (there are several good-uns) over the stock standard 'Australianized' Italian fare.

Great post and I like the historical introduction to this story too.


phishez said...

Haha. INGSOC Melbourne was designed that way because after the shambles that are Sydney streets, they learned!

Lad, I grew up in a very Italian country town. When we went to Italian restaurants, they ALWAYS had fantastic fare.

Except for Pizza Hut. They're just dodgy.

Lad Litter said...

Yep, you wonder how they're still in business. Maybe they do just enough fawning over regular customers to offset those they drive away.

Ms Smack:
Look, maybe. Maybe. I'll just have to go out and buy some fake tan; prosthetic makeup; and the latest Photoshop.

Colonial might be the right description. One of the great urban myths of Melbourne's layout is that the narrowing of wide tree-lined boulevardes that radiate out of the city into claustrophobic shopping strips shows where the 19th Cenury gold ran out.

The photo shows we drive on the left. As you do.

Edward Yates:
Quite strange how shithouse Italian restaurants can be isn't it? I wonder what Carlton was like before the war. It must have been a bit bohemian then too, surely.

Phish: What proof my thesis would ahve if I could only bring myself to include Pizza Hut among Italian restaurants. To be fair, I can't.

Anonymous said...

I worked in one of a chain of well-known Melbourne 'Italian family restaurants' for a year in my uni days. They invented fake italian joviality (and not in the least because they're lebanese).

Lad Litter said...

Miss D:
Hahahaha! What?! They could fake sincerity? I know what you mean. I wouldn't mind if it wasn't so bloody obvious.

BwcaBrownie said...

Not just Carlton,
not just Italians,
not just restaurants:
So very few people in service industries have figured out that they come face to face with the source of the cash they receive under false pretences every Thursday ..... one wants to wave one's handbag at them and scream "THIS contains your wages and the challenge is for you to inveigle them out of me!"

Maria said...

So true, bwca. Frustrating to watch some places, too, with some potential, sabotage themselves - you feel like saying to them that because of their little bit of stinginess here and there, or whatever, they are shooting themselves in the foot - but they don't seem to get it.

I can't say that just of Italian Restaurants but I won't ever go to Mama's Kitchen again - that was mainly the food!

I also remember one Italian restaurant - though I don't know it's name - where "over helpful staff" crowded us, hanging over us while we were trying to chat and made us feel as if our personal space was being invaded so we couldn't relax, and we didn't want to dine there.

It's good to be helpful, but staff should remember that when you're going out - whether with family, on a date, or with friends - you went out to be with those people, not to be with the staff, so the staff should be on-hand when needed but not intrusive or meddling or breathing down one's neck; a fine line to tread.

Steph said...

Hate Lygon st. I am yet to have a decent meal in any restaurant there or walk away with my hearing intact.

One guy practically dragged myself and three friends inside, and THEN opened a bottle of house wine and poured us drinks without even asking.
We walked out and got called "bitches" for not paying for the wine!!!

The Exception said...

I feel fortunate that I have never experienced anything like this. I love Italian food (prefer it in Italy, but... when you can't be in Italy...)

Perhaps I just live in the right area or have the right look... but I would hate to be treated like this while attempting to enjoy my favorite food or a night out!

(Hi... by the way... from DC)

Lad Litter said...

I'm contending that there's a certain intentional tone to poor service at Italian restaurants that is unique. Maybe I don't get out much, but I find that service standards are mostly pretty high.

Staff crowding diners is a shocking experience at a restaurant. You need to make sure there is no encouragement. But sometimes even sledgehammer hints don't work.

As I said in my post, decent restaurants don't need sleazebags touting out the front. And when you don't come to the party, there's always a parting shot, as you experienced. Thanks for the affirmation!

The Exception:
Thanks for stopping by. Deliberately shithouse service might be peculiar to the Italian-Australian diaspora. Part two of the post will show how much worse it can get.

Ed said...

Hey again,

just to be clear I certainly don't think ALL Italian restaurants are terrible. Far from it, the very good ones make the rest look bad. Also the issues I've had with Lygon street Italian eateries are manifold.

1. Pushy rotund men out the front. I've seen one block the path and trap the group walking down the street between the chairs and other patrons on the street and him. Often such men do not desist with a polite 'no thanks' either.

2. Once they have you sat down you are promptly forgotten about. Or after they serve your meal you are then forgotten about. If my wine glass has been empty for an hour I'd expect a cursory check to see if just maybe I'd like another drink. Rather than having to try and flag down a waiter who seems to look everywhere but at your table.

3. Food quality. Often is pretty variable too unfortunately. I'm not sure if the chefs are just uninspired, lazy or the fact that they get enough "one off" tourist or work function traffic that they do not have to worry about people coming back due to enjoyment of the food or what.

There are good Italian eateries and I love good Italian, but it is a shame that a lot of Lygon's Italian places are less than great.


P.S. Looking forward to next post too BTW. ;)

Koren said...

LL, You have me waiting for the follow-up now!

Lad Litter said...

You'd reckon offensive touts would be past their use by date. There's also the particular crappy service that's common but not unique to Lygon St Italian eateries.

Thanks. Next instalment? Probably tonight, as the actress said to the bishop.

geoff said...

"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."

Brilliant mate, that gem of a quote from you, is exactly why I thoroughly enjoy browsing blogs

Lad Litter said...

Why, thank you. Our myths are many and could do with some debunking. Anyone browsing the blogosphere has come to the right place.

geoff said...

Thanks for dropping in to my blog and checking out my recent audition clips. No I have never done impressions in my stand-up gigs. It takes practise lol and I am a bit lazy sometimes plus I do not think I have much of a gift for doing them either. It is one of those odd things about stand-up being such a multi faceted form of performing with the individuals talents being the back bone of their act. I have rarely done accents before simply never been in the state of mind to include it in my comedy hahahh now I am having to put the work into them.

Ann ODyne said...

just passing through to pick up any litter, but it looks pretty neat, cheers

Lad Litter said...

Good luck with all of it. Pretty fascinating stuff. Like your blog a lot more before I saw a certain logo on your shirt. The hate that dare not speak its name!

Ann O'Dyne:
Keeping Australia Beautiful until the next post spoils it for everyone.

Anonymous said...

Lygon street used to thrive with authenticity. Nowadays, it is nothing more than an over-commercialized begging ground for solicitous waiters armed with menus.

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