In 1980, The Age Good Food Guide was published for the first time. 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, including pubs, wine bars, gourmet takeaways, cheap and cheerfuls and late-night cafés.
At this time, the food culture was flourishing. Two food magazines had been circulating since the mid-‘60s: Epicurean and Australian Gourmet. And this wasn’t Australia’s first restaurant guide: “Galloping Gourmet” Graham Kerr had published Graham Kerr’s Guide to Good Eating in Melbourne in 1969. 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.
For those who were in search of something 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. 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 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. It wasn’t until 1996 that “modern Australian” appeared in The Age Good Food Guide – a sign that our local cuisine had truly come of age.