There is some dispute about the origins of Steak Diane but it was almost certainly introduced to Australia by Tony Clerici, maitre d’ at Romano’s restaurant in Sydney. Clerici claimed to have invented the dish at his Mayfair restaurant in 1938 and named it in honour of Lady Diana Cooper, formerly Lady Diana Manners, the society beauty of her time. He brought Steak Diane with him when he returned to Sydney in 1939.
Clerici claimed that he invented the dish on the spot when a group of upper class, politically prominent people were gathered in his London restaurant, Tony’s Grill. It was the evening after the signing of the Munich Agreement, recognising Hitler’s claim to part of Czechoslovakia in an attempt to avoid war. Among the company was Diana, wife of cabinet minister Alfred Duff Cooper, an opponent of the Agreement. In an attempt to alleviate the sombre mood Clerici offered to make a completely new dish, naming it Steak Diane in her honour.* There is a suggestion, however, that he learned the dish from Charles Gallo-Selva, who later became manager of Romano’s Hotel in Wagga Wagga.
There are alternative origin stories. The Café de Paris in London apparently claimed to have served the dish during the 1930s, while certain American meat authorities pointed to an origin at the Copacabana Palace Hotel in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Many sources attribute the dish to Beniamino Schiavon, known as “Nino”, of the Drake Hotel in New York. He is said to have invented Steak Diane with Luigi Quaglino when working at the Plage Restaurant in Ostend, Belgium, in the 1920s. Schiavon began working at the Drake in the early 1940s, so it is conceivable that the dish popped up in Australia before it became known in America.
Tony Clerici was born in Como, Italy, and worked in the hospitality trade in Europe and London, where he met Azzalin Orlando Romano. A former head waiter at The Ritz, Romano emigrated to Australia in 1923 and brought Clerici with him to work at The Ambassador restaurant in Sydney. Four years later Romano opened his eponymous restaurant in York Street. Clerici returned to London in the early 1930s and opened Tony’s Grill in Mayfair, where his clients included kings, aristocrats and leading politicians.
It’s conceivable that Clerici discovered Schiavon’s dish during his time in London, modifying the recipe and claiming it as his own invention. He returned to Sydney in 1939 and resumed his association with Romano when the restaurant moved to Castlereagh Street, Sydney. It became the most prestigious nightspot in Sydney and particularly popular with American officers during World War II. Clerici’s Steak Diane was the signature dish, and was embraced by visiting Americans, leading to the following article which appeared in a Miami, Florida, newspaper in 1942:
Mrs. Phil S. Delany, who came back to this country from New Zealand in late January, brings us a popular Australian dish to contemplate. Good-looking, reddish haired Betty, who lived in Hong Kong and New Zealand with her PAA husband, was in Sydney just a year ago. Uncle Sam’s fleet was in and confetti was all over the place. The Aussies were giving the American sailors a rousing welcome. Betty and Phil went to a restaurant called Romano’s, where the specialty of the house was Steak Diane. (You, too, can learn to cook the dish in one easy lesson. Follow me.)
Tenderloin is best, Betty says, but take another cut if you prefer. Hammer it first, then drop it in a pan that has been touched with butter and Worcestershire sauce. (About a teaspoonful with a gob of butter.) Fry the meat on both sides. Just before serving pour in a lot of chopped parsley and turn the steak over and over. With this steak Roman’s serves French frys [sic] and string beans dipped in flour and fried in deep fat.
Steak Diane was also named as a favourite dish in 1941 by concert pianists Ethel Barlett and Rae Robertson who had just returned to America after an Australian tour.
It’s notable that the recipe quoted in the Miami Herald lacks an ingredient that features in almost all Australian versions of the dish: garlic. Indeed, it seems to have developed differently in Australia and the USA. Clerici’s recipe called for butter, steak, ground pepper, salt, Worcestershire sauce, garlic and parsley. Notably, it did not include shallots, chives or the cognac that became essential parts of the American version, which was often flambéed at the diner’s table.
Clerici left Romano’s in 1952 and later managed Primo’s Lafayette and Prunier’s Chiswick Gardens in Sydney. His dish was soon adopted at upmarket restaurants throughout Australia where the tableside preparation added a touch of theatre to a big night out. It remained popular during the 1950s and 1960s, but as tastes became more eclectic and dining less formal it came to be seen as a bit naff. By the time Maggi introduced their Pour-Over Diane Sauce in 1980, the world had moved on.
*Foys advertisement, Sydney Morning Herald, 11 December 1960