1991 “Modern Middle Eastern” food at O’Connell’s

In 1991, Greg Malouf started cooking upmarket Middle Eastern food at O’Connell’s Hotel in South Melbourne, redefining the possibilities of this cuisine.   ‘Gastro-pubs’ were becoming more common, with more diverse and challenging menus replacing the traditional parmigiana. O’Connell’s regulars, however, would still hit the front bar at lunchtime, for white bread steak sandwiches.

O’Connell’s Centenary Hotel was a traditional corner pub in South Melbourne. According to the local historical society, it was originally the private residence of Mrs Mary Cox but was opened as a hotel by Matthew McKay in 1876. The hotel is named after the Irish Catholic leader, Daniel O’Connell who was born in 1775 (so they almost got the centenary right).

In the 1980s, the dining room at O’Connell’s was called Diamond’s, named after the owners of the time. According to a review in The Age, it delivered reasonably priced food in surroundings that still smacked of ‘designer flash circa the mid-1960s’.  In the bar, it was all ‘boiler suits, cigarette smoke and a bar lady who was obviously a very bad punter because she had lost her shirt’.

Then, in 1990, everything changed. The pub was bought by a consortium of advertising and television types and given a complete revamp. It was a delicate juggling act though. They wanted to retain their traditional blue-collar customers while, at the same time, providing a desirable lunch venue for their industry colleagues.

Thus, the front bar still had a true pub atmosphere and the menu included the classic steak sandwich complete with white sliced bread. There were chips, sausages and other humble fare. And always a pie on the menu.

The restaurant, however, went upmarket and in 1991 Greg Malouf introduced his signature ‘modern Middle Eastern’ menu. The menu drew on his Lebanese routes but added the refinement of his classical training, with dishes such as mussel pilafs and rose-stuffed quail. Malouf cooked at O’Connell’s for ten years, moving on to restaurants in Melbourne (MoMo), London (Petersham Nurseries Café where he gained a Michelin star) and, most recently, Dubai. He now consults to restaurants all over the world.

As chefs have come and gone the menu at O’Connell’s has morphed from Middle Eastern to modern Mediterranean to traditional British.

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