1956 Cafe Balzac opened by Georges & Mirka Mora

Image: East Melbourne Historical Society

Cafe Balzac may be long gone, but its almost forty-year run as a Melbourne culinary institution warrants recognition in this timeline of Australian food. Georges and Mirka Mora, who founded the restaurant, were really more about art than food. The couple, both Jewish, had evaded Nazi persecution during World War II and migrated to Australia from France in 1951. Mirka was a painter and they were soon moving in artistic circles, opening their first city café to cater to a bohemian crowd.

In 1956, they moved from the city to East Melbourne, opening Cafe Balzac. Their artist friends remained involved, with painter Charles Blackman evidently working as a chef while Arthur Boyd and John Percival designed the crockery. Early menus were less than exotic as samples from Cafe Balzac’s application for a liquor licence in the late 1950s show. However, Georges Mora employed a French-trained English chef and the fare soon became more traditionally French.

The liquor licence was granted in 1960, the first restaurant licence in Victoria. It allowed Café Balzac to sell liquor with meals until 10 pm. Civilised dining had, at last, arrived in Melbourne. However, just five years later, the Moras sold the restaurant, opening the Tolarno hotel, café and gallery in St Kilda.  Balzac’s new owners were John and Maria Kornyei, former proprietors of the California Motel in Barkers Road, Kew.

According to a review in The Age in 1975, John Kornyei, who worked the floor as a waiter, migrated to Australia in 1950. He had a somewhat colourful history. He had previously hijacked a fighter plane to escape from communist-controlled Hungary. Arriving in Switzerland, he became an opera singer in Zurich but, finding little demand for his talent in Australia, entered the hospitality business.

I had a note from Reinhard Sass, who worked at the Balzac from 1968 to 1974. He pointed out that, among the celebrities who dined there during the Kornyei years, were Graham Kennedy and Bert Newton. They regularly called in for dinner before their long-running television show, In Melbourne Tonight. Mr Sass didn’t mention the two tigers that lived in the restaurant’s backyard. The beasts were moved to a new home in 1969, owing to a council bylaw that prohibited having a menagerie on food promises. “They were perfectly friendly and didn’t cause any trouble,” said Mr Kornyei, who stressed that the animals had never been inside the building.

The ownership of Cafe Balzac changed again in the late 1970s when, along with Tolarno,  it was bought by the leading Italian restaurateur, Leon Massoni. A 1979 review by Beverley Sutherland Smith was generally complimentary but noted that the quality of food served had fluctuated in the past.  Having dined on Moules a la Mariniere, Casserole d’Agneau a la Toulousain garnished with cocks’ combs, and fruit tart, she wrote “I think Cafe Balzac is a restaurant to which most people would return again and again”.

The ownership merry-go-round continued. In 1980, Elaine and Tony Voulgaris (previously of the Casa Virgona restaurant in Fitzroy) took over.  But by 1988, the owners were Con Kanis & Jim Klapanis. With the procession of owners came a procession of chefs. A review by Terry Durack in 1991 bemoaned the dreary decor, uncomfortable chairs and pretentious French on the menu, but praised the new chef’s more ambitious dishes which included a parfait of duck with sauternes jelly and a ballotine of roasted veal kidneys filled with sweetbreads and mushrooms. His verdict:

The ambience and the service at Balzac still dwell too heavily in the past, and the owners should be inspired enough by the quality of the food to give it a nice home. But it’s good to see that after 35 years, Cafe Balcac once again has an artist in the kitchen.

Sadly, the said artistry wasn’t enough. In 1993, the Cafe Balzac name disappeared, as the premises became Arrigo Harry’s Bar, run by a former chef and maitre d’ from the Grand Hyatt. In 1998, it was reinvented as the Bistrot Balzac. With a well-known chef, Tansy Good, in the kitchen it offered modern Australian food but, according to reviewer John Lethlean, was “both expensive and clinging to a few traditions that really ought to be let go”.

I don’t know how long the restaurant continued as Bistrot Balzac, but in 2013 it took on its current (as of 2022) identity of The Tipler & Co. Popular with those heading to the nearby Melbourne Cricket Ground for the footy, the restaurant/bar does a modern Australian mix with half price gnocchi on Wednesdays.  The Balzac name, and its French heritage, are now firmly in the past.

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