The Café de Paris restaurant was among the earliest European-style restaurants to open in Melbourne, although four-penny, six-penny and shilling restaurants were abundant in the 1850s. These generally offered basic, English-style food. Rita Erlich’s article on the eMelbourne website gives an insight into early Melbourne restaurants.
In 1855 John Black built the Theatre Royal, which incorporated the Royal Hotel and the Café de Paris, in Bourke Street. The enterprise was leased by theatrical entrepreneur George Coppin, who presided at the café’s opening dinner on 14 June 1858. It opened to the public the following day. The menu for the opening dinner was printed in red on a broad band of white silk. It was reproduced in The Herald in 1913 and included such delicacies as Real Turtle soup, Murray Cod and Oyster Sauce Garnies de Quenelles d’Homard, and Dandes Trufflees Bouillees Sauce au Celeri. There was goose, pigeons, rabbit, ham, lamb and even kangaroo, followed by dozens of sweet dishes including plum pudding.
The cafe was operated by Felix William Spiers and Christopher Pond. Their catering business Spiers and Pond relocated to London in 1862 and became, for a time, the largest catering enterprise in the world. After their departure, the Café de Paris was run by a succession of operators. The building was extensively damaged by fire in 1872 but was rebuilt.
In 1885 the then-proprietor, Mark Milne, was in court facing charges related to the conduct of bars on his premises. A room opening off the Theatre Royal’s vestibule bar had become known as the “Saddling Paddock” and was notorious as the haunt of prostitutes seeking to find customers among Melbourne’s smart set. The Licensing Court withdrew the café’s licence in 1919, by which time it seems its bar was catering only to theatre patrons.
Rita Erlich names the Café de Paris as the forerunner of other French-style restaurants including Maison Dorée, La Mascotte, Parer’s Crystal Café and the Café Anglais which flourished during the 1890s. She writes:
Immigration has always been a deciding factor in the nature of Melbourne’s restaurants. If the good early restaurants were run by the Swiss and French, the Italians were, in the long run, more important. In the first decades of the 20th century, the two most important restaurants were Fasoli’s and Café Denat, both owned by Swiss proprietors but of very different styles.
Fasoli’s was Italian, earthily sophisticated, almost bohemian. Café Denat, which first opened in Flinders Lane in 1893, eventually moved into a wine shop in Exhibition Street. It became a formal restaurant in a grandly Edwardian style, with a French menu. The motto, on the head of the menu, was Honni Soit Qui Mal Y Mange (evil be to he who eats badly). Café Denat was eventually bought by the Massoni family who renamed it Café Florentino.