In 1963, Melbourne’s Ress Oriental Hotel trumpeted the opening of its new Rib Room, one of three restaurants in the hotel. The advertisement proclaimed that it was “serving lunch for men only, and dinner when the ladies are welcome, too.” The hotel, at the “Paris end” of Collins Street, was not the first to have a steak cave reserved for men. The Southern Cross Hotel, the first American-style luxury hotel in Melbourne, had opened in 1962 along with its Grill Room, which was for men only until 3 pm.
It’s not clear whether the Rib Room remained a male preserve until the hotel closed and was demolished in 1972, but a review published in The Age confirms that its men-only status lasted at least until 1966. The reviewer, Anthony Lewis, was approving.
Lunch at the Rib Room is entirely a masculine affair. No women. Both genders have equal rights for dinner, but lunch is strictly men only, which means one can fling oneself into one of the black, hide-bound alcoves with an abandonment one doesn’t usually enjoy in mixed company. And one can talk without the explanatory asides one needs must employ at times for the advancement of feminine understanding.
The menu at the Rib Room was apparently pretty plain. “Steak for steak’s sake,” the maitre d’ explained to Mr Lewis. The starter was oysters, the dessert was strawberries and cream. For the main, there was the option of broiled lobster but the reviewer chose the filet mignon, accompanied by a baked Idaho potato. Along with a bottle of wine, the bill for two came to $10.50 which, it seems, was $2.50 more than the average at the restaurant.
The men-only eateries may have been inspired by an American trend. An article in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1961 described the “Men only crusade” in the United States. The article talks about cocktail bars, clubs, restaurants, commuter trains, bowling alleys and even cruises that were excluding women in a movement that saw men “beginning to break free from the domination of women”. The Waldorf-Astoria and Plaza hotels in New York were operating men-only dining rooms, while a drugstore chain was initiating lunch counters just for men.
It’s tempting to think the whole article is a joke. It describes male-only airline flights where “an air hostess at the door of the plane is there in the traditional role of woman: the servant and comforter of man”. A Washington psychiatrist expressed a view that the men-only movement was “a way of getting back, of expressing their rage at women’s new independence.” Dr Carl Flanders, of California’s Social Clinics Institute, allegedly said:
The worm has turned. He may soon have the courage to say ‘No’ to such demeaning tasks as going for the shopping and washing his children’s clothes.
Alternatively, the Ress Oriental and the Southern Cross may simply have been trying to compete with the private clubs that restricted their membership and dining facilities to men. While the men-only rule may have vanished from restaurants in the liberated ’70s, most of these clubs, including the Melbourne Club, Tattersalls and the Atheneum Club stubbornly clung to their status as male bastions for decades. Some still do.