November 4, 2008
IT HAS been many years since you could put Lygon Street and
fashionable into the same sentence without someone sniggering. Most
Melburnians - even those clinging to fond memories of the good, old
bohemian days - tend to be dismissive of the street, relegating it to
the status of clapped-out tourist trap, a place fallen victim to its
own success. Add the organised crime affiliations (recently buffed
and refreshed courtesy of Underbelly) and it is hardly surprising
that the received wisdom about Lygon Street is that it is a shadow of
its former self.
It may be true that Lygon Street is currently without the hip status
of places such as Gertrude Street and the Windsor end of Chapel
Street, but it is the strip that gave Australia its first commercial
pizza house, its first commercial espresso machine, the first shop to
bring extra virgin olive oil and mozzarella cheese to the masses. So
does it still have something interesting and worthwhile to give in
terms of how we eat and drink? You'd have to say a resounding "no" to
the strip between Queensberry and Grattan streets. This has made the
current-day Lygon Street more notorious than famous. In these few
blocks there is the veritable swarm of almost identical pasta and
pizza joints, complete with the red-gingham cliches, a tangle of
sidewalk furniture and besuited characters stationed out the front
accosting passers-by with oversized, laminated menus and promises of
free glasses of wine. It is where the sweet dream of Little Italy
turns cynically mass-produced.
It was this part of the street that handed over to tourism in the
early 1980s. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Lygon Street
became the first of Melbourne's alternatively fashionable shopping
and eating strips. The old Italian businesses - cafes and delis, wine
bars and old-style grocers and shoe shops - were increasingly
attracting a young Anglo crowd, students from Melbourne University,
staff from nearby hospitals and bohemian types drawn to Carlton's
then-cheap rents. It was the time of the counterculture, the "summer
of love" and Lygon Street's slightly shabby, unrenovated Victorian
shops with their wide verandas and ornate lacework fitted perfectly
with the bohemian aesthetic of the time. Places could sell nutloaf
and mung beans and still make a profit. The whiff of alternative
lifestyles was irresistible in a city with a well-earned reputation
for fusty conservatism. And as more people flocked to Lygon Street to
eat, drink and kick up their heels, old-time businesses succumbed to
the cafes and pizza joints that were servicing the new crowd.
Sniffy reports in The Melbourne Times about Lygon Street being
overrun by "trendies" were already a fixture when Australia's first
street festival, the Lygon Street Festa, was held in 1978. More than
250,000 people descended on the street over one weekend, effectively
obliterating the last vestiges of the old Lygon Street as quaint and
atmospheric and turning it into a heaving and often raucous
By the early 1980s, the street was being overwhelmed. One in four
shops was an eating place (compared with a one in 10 ratio that was
the city's average) and so the Lygon Street Action Plan was
commissioned. In this plan, the section of Lygon Street between
Queensberry and Grattan streets was designated a tourist precinct,
with essentially no cap on the number of cafes and restaurants that
could open. North of Grattan, it would be much harder to open a new
food business where there had not been one before.
The difference in the look and feel of Lygon Street north and south
of Grattan Street is quite remarkable and a living example of how
intrinsically planning policy can affect the atmosphere and operation
of a street.
This is not to say that the southern section of Lygon Street is a
complete wasteland, especially for those who like a little history
with their imbibing.
Toto's Pizza, the first pizza house in Australia (opened in 1966) and
the place that encouraged the first mass wave of Melburnians to Lygon
Street is still dishing out the pies. Toto's may lack the cred and
cool of the city's new-wave pizza joints but its big, bustling
atmosphere, decent pizza and atmosphere of old Lygon Street make it
one to keep on the radar.
Then there is the quaintly old-school Casa Del Gelato, run by
Ottorino Pace, the man who sold his original pasticceria in Lygon
Street to Pierro Brunetti in the 1970s; Lambs, one of the last
vestiges of Lygon Street's small but distinct Greek history and still
the purveyors of some of the city's finest souvlaki; and Balzari, a
newer business with authentic north-Italian cooking. The burgeoning
city-based Asian student population has also seen this southern end
of Lygon Street generate a series of brightly lit, budget-priced
Indian, Malaysian, Indonesian, Thai and Chinese restaurants and cafes
that are often packed. It recalls the days of the 1960s, when an
earlier generation of students flocked to Lygon Street in search of a
It is the section between Grattan and Elgin streets that retains many
of the vestiges of old Lygon Street, even if it is in a more spruced
up modern form than some purists would like. Even those most
disparaging about the direction Lygon Street has taken over the years
soften slightly at the roll call of businesses in this stretch.
Combined, they show why Lygon Street maintains a hold as one of
Melbourne's better food streets.
There are many people for whom shopping for food on Lygon Street on a
Saturday morning makes up an important part of their life in
Melbourne. The ritual will include buying meat from Leo Donati's
excellent art and opera-flavoured butcher shop, wine and cheese from
King and Godfree's (still going strong after 120 years in the trade),
pasta from Donnini's and cakes and pastries from around the corner in
Brunetti's. Add a drink at Jimmy Watson's, a coffee at Carlton
Espresso or Trotters or the University, lunch at Tiamo's or
Donnini's.Ritual and shared history are, of course, very important in
making the Grattan-Elgin stretch of Lygon Street the unique shopping
and eating experience it is, but Lygon Street is increasingly about
the new as much as the established, particularly in its more
Zip north to East Brunswick (past the wonderful Italian treasure
trove that is Enoteca Sileno) and you'll find Lygon Street reclaiming
its fashionable tag. Small idiosyncratic bars such as Atticus Finch
and The Alderman mix it up with cafes including Small Block,
Gingerlee and Poached. There is Sugarloaf combining bakery and cafe,
Fishbone taking fish and chips a few notches upmarket, Smith and
Maloney greengrocers peddling quality fruit and veg to an
increasingly discerning crowd and Blackhearts & Sparrows, raising the
bar for local bottle shops with a wine attitude that is happier with
the boutique than the mass market. Then there is the always bustling,
modern Middle Eastern Rumi and, veering dangerously close to opening,
George Calombaris' new venture, Hellenic Republic.
There is an energy and an attitude in this part of the street that
would not have been out of place a few blocks south during the summer
of love. It seems to show that it can be too easy to write off a once
fashionable street prematurely. Lygon Street has been the commercial
heart of Carlton since the street first appeared on maps in 1852. It
may change with the times, but to dismiss it as irrelevant would be
to miss some of the best bits of Melbourne, both past and present.
The Summer of Love
Two Lygon Street icons capture the heady richness of 1970s Melbourne.
John Portelli, the owner of Enoteca Sileno, started working part-time
at the Lygon Food Store in 1970 and two years later, at the age of
16, he started full-time work. It was, he says, "the best
apprenticeship anybody could have ever had in his or her lifetime".
His obvious enthusiasm for the store and what it achieved remains
intact to this day, more than 20 years after he left to work with his
father-in-law, Gino Di Santo at Enoteca Sileno.
"Lygon Food Store was the most important delicatessen store that
Australia had at that time. It had a reputation Australia-wide and
journos from interstate would ring me for info all the time, as
people were becoming more and more aware about the Italian foods.
"We were pioneers in the specialised Italian and delicatessen food.
We had all the specialties from France, what was available from Spain
and Italy as well as all the smallgoods. One of the things that made
us unique is that we had a lot of cheeses that nobody else ever had.
In those days we used to airfreight cheeses fresh from overseas. We
had a very large component of raw milk cheeses that were allowed in
at the time - raw Brie de Meaux, raw goat's milk cheeses, raw
camembert, Roquefort. We had all those products freely and liberally available.
"To put the cheese away on a Saturday afternoon would take three
hours. We used to cut a wheel of parmigiano a day with an almond
knife, six days a week.
"We would sell 80 prosciutto crudi every week. Hotels like the Hilton
and the Regent would call us up and order three or four thousand
slices of prosciutto at a time. That was what the volume of business
we were doing was like. We would have nine people behind the counter
in a shop at busy times. This was in a shop that was barely four
metres wide and no more than seven metres long. When it was busy,
people would come in the front door and would leave out the back door
once they had been served. There was no room for people to turn around.
When we ordered parmigiano we would order 40 wheels at a time. We had
80 kilogram wheels of emmental and age them, 250 kilogram logs of
provolone that we would age for three years. They aged in the store
and we had a block and tackle to move them. We used to age a lot of
cheese in the front window. The shop itself had a blind for when the
sun shone in the morning and we installed a really large coolroom
refrigeration unit. So this cooling unit would cool down the whole
shop, literally like a large coolroom. It was not like an
air-conditioner because it didn't dry the product. Coolrooms maintain
You could smell it when you walked past and with all this cheese in
the window, people would always stop and look and then they would
come in. It wasn't just Italians shopping at this stage; we had
Spanish people, Greeks, Jews, Australians coming in too. People came
because we had products that no one else had. We were still in touch
with that new generation of migrants, the people who had migrated in
the 1950s, the 1960s who wanted the real products. The Women's
Hospital had a lot of migrant workers behind the scenes so they would
pass by and all the pregnant women would pass by and stop off for
their cheese fixes and so on. As Lygon Street became more of a
tourist precinct, and because we used to get a massive amount of
media coverage, we'd get lots of people coming here from the country
I can remember Johnny had ordered a display fridge that was 20 feet
long - maybe the only 20-foot fridge in Australia. When they
delivered it they had to take the front window out of the shop and
get it in that way. It was an amazing exercise, but what was even
more amazing was that we continued to serve customers while all this
was going on."
Edited extracts from Lygon Street: Stories and Recipes from
Melbourne's Melting Pot, Michael Harden, Murdoch Books, $59,95.
The most enduring (and, many would argue, endearing) of the
hippie/counterculture businesses on Lygon Street was the vegetarian
restaurant Shakahari. Owned since 1980 by John Dunham and Beh Kim Un
(Kim), Shakahari opened in 1972, across the lane from Jimmy Watson's.
. . it was a vegetarian cafe of its time, serious, committed,
ideological and decorated on the smell of an oily rag. Hessian bags
hung in the front window and were stapled to the inside walls and
painted. Upstairs, silver insulation foil with tar backing decorated
the ceiling and colourful flags hung about. It was, as Kim (who
started working at Shakahari in 1978) says, "very theatrical".
"People liked it because it was one of the original hippy hangouts.
They would come upstairs and say, 'wow, a silver ceiling, that is so
Kim had started working at Shakahari after he had returned from a
stint in England. He was attracted to the alternative lifestyle that
Carlton offered and the moment he walked into Shakahari he decided he
was going to work there.
"It was a time when everyone who was here was looking for a break
from normal life. Back then you had options; you didn't have to
achieve anything if you didn't want to. Living in an alternative way
was considered an achievement. Our focus was to be alternative - that
was your profession. When I walked into Shakahari, I said, "I love
this shop". It was all very spiritual and alternative and very strong
and I thought I would do anything in this restaurant and if I can't
get a job I'll go back and be a chemist. Then they said we don't have
anything but a dishwasher (position) and so I said, "I'll take it". I
had only been working there for a short time when they asked me if I
knew how to cook. I said I would try, even though I was not a vegetarian.
We didn't have any dairy, we used only wholemeal unbleached flour and
organic food, and whatever vegies we could source, which were always
from someone's farm. We didn't have a coolroom and so we would use
whatever someone brought to the door that day. When I started here,
they didn't have an idea about the science of balancing food and so
they would have blanched vegies and raw nuts on the menu. I thought
we could do it better, that you can't only dine on that. And we
wanted to attract meat eaters as well as vegetarians. And so we
introduced the idea of the four balances in our cooking - everything
we created had to have carbohydrate, protein, mineral and texture. I
started using all the Asian ingredients and elements of cooking, but
using original Western fusion and multicultural concepts, combining
the two ways of doing things."
Shakahari has served "a whole book-full of famous people", including
the likes of Barry Humphries ('referred to us by a Japanese medical
person'), kd lang, David Bowie and Helen Garner ("she used to write
in Shakahari - a lot of people did for inspiration"). The hessian
bags and silver ceiling may have gone with the move around the corner
to Drummond Street, but not the conviction held by John and Kim that
Shakahari was the first restaurant to be offering serious East-West
fusion food. This "first in the world" crown is also claimed by
California (Alice Waters) and Adelaide (Philip Searle and Cheong
Liew), but John believes that Kim's dishes, such as an Asian-leaning
vegetarian lasagne with tofu, spinach and nuts, made the restaurant a
pioneer that scored another first for Lygon Street.
Edited extracts from Lygon Street: Stories and Recipes from
Melbourne's Melting Pot, Michael Harden, Murdoch Books, $59,95.