The Age already had a popular food section, which prompted the publication of the Guide. It was first edited by Claude Forell. There were just over 400 eating establishments mentioned in the first edition of The Age Good Food Guide, including pubs, wine bars, gourmet take-aways, cheap and cheerfuls and late-night cafés.
In 1980, The Age Good Food Guide was published for the first time. The food culture was flourishing. It wasn’t Australia’s first restaurant guide: “Galloping Gourmet” Graham Kerr had published Graham Kerr’s Guide to Good Eating in Melbourne in 1969. Two food magazines had also been circulating since the mid-‘60s: Epicurean and Australian Gourmet. However, the decision by a major newspaper to produce an annual publication devoted to restaurant reviews showed just how far the food revolution had progressed.
In those days, a degustation at Stephanie Alexander’s restaurant cost $28 and you still couldn’t get into Florentino without a jacket and tie. There were just over 400 eating establishments mentioned in the first edition of the Guide, including pubs, wine bars, gourmet take-aways, cheap and cheerfuls and late-night cafés.
There were also theatre restaurants. Remember them? Back in the ‘70s and early ‘80s they were everywhere, famous for off-colour jokes and audience involvement. Dirty Dick’s in Queens Road epitomised the genre, but there were plenty more. Tikki and John’s pioneered this bizarre intersection of food and vaudeville, presenting a succession of shows in their Exhibition Street premises.
For those who were in search of something more sophisticated, the Good Food Guide provided reviews of 300 or so “proper” restaurants. Of these, more than 15 per cent described their style of cuisine as French. French food was still the gold standard for fine dining and remained so for a large part of the ‘80s. The number of “French” establishments reached a peak in 1983 when even a restaurant with the distinctly non-Gallic name of Lombardi was included in this category.
There were already signs, however, of a new style of cooking in search of an identity. In the 1980 Guide, 42 restaurants classified themselves as “International” while 11, finding it hard to put a label on their approach, called themselves “Individual”. As the decade progressed and edition followed edition, these numbers climbed, with others opting simply for “Modern” or “New Style”.
In 1980, the Guide editors commented that “a few restaurants have begun to experiment with new styles of cooking that emphasise the use of fresh, seasonal produce and enhance its natural flavours”. La Madrague in South Melbourne, a bastion of classic French cooking, was dabbling in the lighter approach, offering Cuisine Minceur on Wednesday nights only.
Chinese food was continuing its ascent from the neighbourhood chow mein and chop suey shop to offer increasingly sophisticated dishes. In 1980, 26 Chinese restaurants were mentioned in the Good Food Guide, along with four Malaysian, five Indonesian and six Thai.
Japanese food had yet to make a big impression and in 1981 the Guide still felt the need to point out to its less sophisticated readers that sashimi was raw fish. A Japanese establishment in the city, it said, offered “vinegared rice hors d’oevres”. Sushi, it appears, was not a generally recognised commodity and most of us still felt squeamish about the idea of eating our seafood uncooked. Five years later, sushi had become a craze. By the late ‘90s, it was available in every shopping centre food court.
As the ‘80s began, “Australian” food meant establishments like the Bourke County Beefhouse and the red-blooded Bullboar and Yabbie. There were also more than a dozen establishments that described themselves as “country style”, plus the odd buffet, carvery, spit-roast or “English” restaurant. During the ten years that followed our dining preferences clearly changed, the “meat and potatoes” style was in decline, and several of these categories disappeared altogether.