In 1987 a restaurant in Madrid, Zalacaín, became the first Spanish restaurant to be given three Michelin stars. It signified a new recognition for high-end Spanish cuisine. The Barcelona Olympic Games in 1992 further focused attention on Spain. By then Ferran Adrià was cooking at El Bulli, an establishment that in 2002 was named the world’s best restaurant.
As well as high-end cuisine, there was increasing interest in a more casual feature of Spanish eating: tapas. Mo Vida was launched as Australians were rediscovering tapas and claimed credit for kick-starting the trend towards shared plates.
There had been Spanish restaurants in Melbourne since the first wave of Spanish immigration during the gold rush. Other cities, too, had cafés and restaurants run by these early immigrants, many of whom hailed from Catalonia. In 1958, the Australian and Spanish governments signed an agreement to provide assisted passage for immigrants. As a result, around 28,000 Spanish people came to Australia with numbers peaking in 1963.
By 1962, the Spanish Cellar was operating at 131 Collins Street, Melbourne. In 1969, Rafael’s in Melbourne’s Little Bourke Street was advertising itself (clearly erroneously) as “Melbourne’s first all-Spanish Restaurant”. Rafael’s employed a Spanish dance trio but, perhaps lacking the courage of its convictions, advertised its food as “Spanish and International Cuisine”.
Johnson Street in Fitzroy, Melbourne, became the centre of a small Spanish enclave. By the mid- 1970s the area was home to the Spanish Club, restaurants including El Cid, Costa Brava, El Torremolinos and La Alhambra, a Spanish café and a Spanish grocery called Casa Iberica. Casa Iberica continues, but has since moved to Alphington.
The restaurants invariably offered a flamenco floor show on most nights, to the ire of one reviewer who found the thundering of the dancers shoes distressing. And sometimes they were culturally confused, with El Torremolinos offering “Arabian nights with belly dancer”. Another reviewer warned diners to avoid meat dishes in Spanish restaurants, recommending they stick to eggs and fish. Seafood stew, zarzuela, was a popular menu item, along with the ever-present garlic prawns.
There was no mention of tapas in the 1970s, although dishes we would now recognise as traditional tapas were served as entrées or “assorted hors d’oeuvres”. In 1989-90, though, tapas bars began to spring up around Melbourne. These were, perhaps, the true fore-runners of Mo Vida, but without the gourmet pretensions. Again, most advertised entertainment five nights a week.
Dishes at Carmen’s, in Johnson Street, included mussels vinaigrette, tortilla, sardines, Spanish meatballs, marinated clams, crispy fried calamari, marinated pork, octopus or vegetables and “Spanish salami” (calling it chorizo was obviously going to far for the punters of the day). These small plates were priced between $2 and $5.
Evidently, as memories of the Olympics faded, so did the interest in Spanish food. In 1995, The Age was reporting on “the tapas boom that went bust”. All but two of Johnson Street’s seven tapas bars had closed, their failure blamed on the lack of authenticity in the food, diners’ unwillingness to pay a premium for small dishes and the “yobbo element” who just wanted to get sloshed on jugs of sangria.
It seems that by the early 2000s that Melbourne was once more ready to embrace Spanish food. At Mo Vida, Camorra dispensed with the Flamenco dancers and the clichéd Spanish cellar style decor. And the sangria. The offering of authentic tapas and raciones (small shared plates), plus a gigantic wine list, struck a chord with the smart set. Mo Vida subsequently opened three more establishments: Mo Via Next Door, Aqui and Bar Tini.