There are only a few restaurants and cafes left from the 1950’s that speak of the post-war period when what it meant to be an Australian started to change. After all, just a decade earlier you had an Australian Prime Minister who was willing to declare himself British to his bootstraps, and ‘going home’ still meant returning to an England you'd never seen in real life. Dining at home meant meat and three veg, restaurant eating out meant French food and such exotic treats as coke, hamburgers or donuts, well they were only available on special occasions such as the yearly agricultural shows.
One survivor though is the Waiters Club Restaurant. It gets its name from being the place where Italian waiters newly arrived from the old country would go after work, looking for a cheap and filling meal, as well as being somewhere to play cards and socialise. I suspect it lost this function decades ago, after all I glimpsed an old newspaper clipping (from the 1970’s I think) indicating that while still an institution it no longer filled its old purpose. But I for one hope that it will always be here, because you can never properly understand where you are going without understanding where you have come from.
That’s despite that in many ways our experience here was pretty mediocre and I felt a little guilty for dragging Bureaucrat and Snooze all the way here from work. It started off quite promising, as I think they were surprised at its semi-secret upstairs location, the time warp feel of the faux-wood tables and the 1960s style travel promotions on the walls. We were also lucky to get a seat, as the restaurant isn't large but is still popular.
The first slightly ‘what the’ moment though came from the waitress who led us to our table. You know that feeling you get from some staff that you're simply an imposition on their time, well a couple of the staff gave that impression in buckets. A bit of a shame really as some of the other staff, including one who I assume was the manager, gave the completely opposite impression.
The menu is quite extensive with a mix of regular and daily offerings. All three of us headed for meaty offerings from the specials board. I was a little surprised at Bureaucrat’s choice of the chicken livers and Snooze’s roast pork, but my braised oxtail (with a large side of vegetables) was definitely the sort of thing I usually head for.
Snooze’s and my dish arrived probably 5 minutes before Bureaucrat’s and we were soon tucking into some fairly generous lunches. Snooze’s pork was decent, the crackling had some snap to it and my braised ox tail came with appropriately falling apart tender meat. Those were the good parts about the dishes. On the other hand, we were both left wanting just a little more. Snooze’s comment was that it reminded her of old cafeteria food which I thought was just a little harsh. I know what she meant though, as while I enjoyed my oxtail it was no better than I’d have expected from any randomly chosen pub meal. This was reinforced when Bureaucrat’s livers arrived, while there was nothing wrong with them but they were just a bit mediocre.
It could have been partly that we struck out in our orders, after all the fish (sole?) that we saw overlapping the plate when heading for other tables did smell good, and I do have memories of some pretty decent pasta on other visits. But I suspect in terms of quality and being at the more interesting edge of Melbourne dining, the Waiter’s restaurants best days are long, long behind it.
Despite that it’s somewhere I'm always likely to have a soft spot for, and I hope it never closes its doors. Eating here is about the food but it’s also about a Melbourne that no longer exists except in memory. It makes me feel incredibly nostalgic and I’m not even from Melbourne, as it’s a reminder of the time when Melbourne was transforming from a distant outpost of England to the multicultural city it is today.
Food – 6.5
Ambience – 7.5
Service – 5.5
Price – 6
History – 9
20 Meyers Place
Melbourne Vic 3000
Tel: (03) 9650 1508