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A culinary revolution: reflections on Adelaide restaurants

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As the Adelaide Festival prepares to celebrate the city's golden gastronomic era with a serious of long lunches on the Riverbank Palais, Nigel Hopkins reflects on the people and places that have shaped our restaurant scene.

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If French gastronome Brillat-Savarin’s observation is true – that “the discovery of a new dish does more for the happiness of man than the discovery of a star” – then Adelaide’s generally contented soul has been well fed over the years. We’ve certainly had our fair share of stars in the kitchen.

But it’s been a roller-coaster ride that’s seen Adelaide’s culinary reputation rise and fall over the past 30 years.

For a while, from the mid-1980s through to the early 1990s, the city was seen as a national leader, with some of the country’s most innovative and exciting restaurants.

Remember Phillip Searle and Barry Ross’s Possums, Lew Kathreptis at Mezes, Ann Oliver at Mistress Augustine’s, Urs Inauen at Fleurieu (named by one hardened Melbourne critic as the best hotel restaurant in Australia), Cheong Liew at Neddy’s, Maggie Beer at the Pheasant Farm, Cath Kerry at Petaluma/Bridgewater Mill, GloBo’s and Duthy’s, Jarmers, and Mandarin Duck? This is a list of exceptional restaurants that turned out menu after menu of stellar new dishes that soon had us wondering if perhaps we’d stumbled on a definitive “Australian cuisine” after all.

The sad fact is that almost none of them remain open. Most of the chefs who started them have either left Adelaide or the restaurant business.

Evolution of the restaurant industry

Adelaide was an early adopter of restaurants. The city’s first restaurant is believed to have been the dining room in the Colton Hotel, which was established in 1838.

However, 130 years later, in 1968, Adelaide could count only 22 licensed restaurants – the oldest of them being the Quality Inn, which had started in 1897.

It was in the 1970s that the culinary revolution started to take hold in South Australia.

By 1977, the city had just under 200 licensed restaurants. In 2006, there were 1300, with Adelaide gaining the reputation of having more licensed restaurants per capita than any other Australian city (a claim disputed by Melbourne).

It wasn’t just the result of post-war migration from Europe, although that had something to do with it.

Remember the Marina Bar, Pagana’s or La Cantina? These were the places that spawned the next generation of Italian cafes and coffee bars in the city. The very first was Allegro, under the newsreel theatre opposite Myers, which was started in the early ’50s.

But the place that deserves a memorial is the Mocha Bar – started in 1956 and located in Morphett Street just a few doors up from its corner with Hindley Street. The man who started it was Mick Papparella, famous for being the first person in Adelaide to make a cappuccino, with powdered chocolate on top.

Giacondo Caon, who grew up in Hindley Street and went on to become part of its history by starting La Cantina in December 1960, remembers how the Mocha Bar was the hangout for young Italian men, soccer players with slicked-back hair and pointy-toes shoes bought from the Italian shoe shop around the corner in Hindley Street. The Greek boys hung out across the road, at the Star Grocery.

Fulvio Pagani arrived in Adelaide in 1955 and went on to start one of Adelaide’s premier coffee roasters, Rio Coffee, in 1964. He remembers that the Mocha Bar used a Faema machine – in those days only Faema or Gaggia machines were available. About 90 per cent of the coffee sold in those days was percolated (another word for stewed), says Fulvio.

The close-knit Italian restaurant and café community spread across Adelaide… Pagana’s, Flash, Central Pizza Bar, and Marcellina’s (started in 1963 by Antonio Parisi, whose family went on to run La Trattoria and then Parisi’s – three generations in the business).

So was Mick Paparella and his Mocha Bar the first to make an espresso coffee in Adelaide? Almost unbelievably, that honor seems to go to the Australians who owned a very ordinary café called the Berkeley, next to what was Miller Andersons in Hindley Street.

“They didn’t know what to do with their espresso machine,” says Giacondo Caon, who remembers it started a year before the Mocha Bar, in 1955. “They didn’t know how to make a cappuccino – it was just coffee with a lot of milk.”

By the end of the 1960s, Adelaide’s restaurant scene was limited to a handful of Italian restaurants, mostly offering simple homestyle cooking; a similar handful of Chinese restaurants – The Dragon Inn, Emperor’s Court and Pagoda among them; mid-European restaurants such as the Barbecue Inn, which started in 1958, and the characterful Hungarian in Cardwell Street; the Chesser Cellars, started in 1964; the Magic Flute and one or two other upmarket establishments such as Derek Jolly’s Decca’s in Melbourne Street; and the hotels – such as the revered South Australian Hotel, which ran from 1879 until its unfortunate demolition in 1971.

The lounge bar of the South Australian Hotel. Image courtesy of the State Library of South Australia, SLSA: PRG 733/369

The lounge bar of the South Australian Hotel. Image courtesy of the State Library of South Australia, SLSA: PRG 733/369

The hotel dining culture, exemplified by the “South’s” dining room, set the standard for Adelaide’s English-style restaurants.

A menu from May 1944 tells a sorry story, perhaps due in part to wartime restrictions. The soup, just one, was vegetable broth, followed possibly by creamed sweetbreads with green peas and bacon, roast chicken and grilled bacon, and steamed apricot sponge with apricot sauce. Perhaps more distressingly, all liquor and glasses had to be off the table by 7.55pm. These were the dark ages.

Things were definitely on the move by 1970. Fried crumbed frogs’ legs or snails a la mode were among the entrees, along with a tropical fruit cocktail and, very daring, assorted salami with potato salad. Main courses included grilled “schnapper” cutlets Portugaise, curried scallops with rice and chutney and veal steak Parisienne. Three courses for $5.25, and that would have been the top rate in town.

The golden gastronomic era

The rapid increase in the number of Adelaide restaurants and the modernisation of menus in the 1970s can be attributed to three main factors: the rising discretionary incomes of Adelaide’s population, the relaxation of licensing laws and the supportive interest of South Australia’s premier, Don Dunstan – the last two factors being closely related.

Don Dunstan (far right) at a Symposium of Gastronomy in Adelaide in the 1980s.

Don Dunstan (far right) at a Symposium of Gastronomy in Adelaide in the 1980s.

Dunstan, who became Premier for the first time in 1967 and then again in 1970, played a pivotal role in changing the city’s restaurant and café culture. As attorney-general in 1967, he set about reforming the state’s “hopelessly antiquated, unworkable liquor laws” which allowed restaurants to serve only Australian wine, mead or perry and only until 9pm.

Another aspect of the legislative changes that Dunstan introduced was to make outdoor eating and cellar door sales possible – a great boon for vineyards in the state.

Dunstan wasn’t playing simple popular politics; his interest in food stemmed from his childhood in Fiji, where he’d learned that a curry was not just a weak stew with a couple of teaspoons of commercial curry powder added to it. He remains the only Australian premier to have written a cookery book (Don Dunstan’s Cookbook), and in time he opened his own restaurant, Don’s Table, in Norwood.

In a way, Dunstan was echoing the cross-cultural influences that would come to define the Australian style of cooking and give national, even international, prominence to fusion cuisine exponents such as Cheong Liew and Cedric Eu (notably at Mandarin Duck). Although this also created a great deal of confusion cuisine, it certainly led to Adelaide’s discovery of a veritable Milky Way of new dishes.

Cheong had come from Kuala Lumpur as an engineering student in 1969. He supported himself working in Melbourne in pubs and railway cafes, where he learnt about steak sandwiches and rissoles, before progressing to a Greek restaurant kitchen in Adelaide, where the chef had international hotel training and introduced Cheong to the basics of classic cuisine.

Then came work with a most imaginative restaurateur: Jill Heaven at Kitcheners, a colonial-style Indian restaurant, and her neighbouring Moos, a French steakhouse. Eventually Cheong was given a chance to work in the steakhouse and started to look at the way in which vegetables were being prepared.

According to an interview conducted by the late Mietta O’DonnelI, his response was that if that was French cuisine, they “might as well give it up right now”. But he persisted, and began to introduce vegetables more related to the Asian style of eating. Moos soon became known as an innovative and exciting restaurant on the basis of its vegetables.

Cheong Liew at Neddy's Table.

Cheong Liew at Neddy’s Table.

The Liew family in Kuala Lumpur was at the crossroad between Malay, Indian, Chinese and English cultures and cuisines, so opening Neddy’s in 1975 was, for Cheong, a “natural Australian restaurant being multicultural – a combination of Greek, Indian, Chinese, Malay and other dishes”.

This was unheard of in Adelaide. The food he was producing at Neddy’s was as original as any cooking can be and took food in Australia into previously uncharted waters.

Neddy’s helped to stimulate a golden gastronomic era for Adelaide.

That era included another extraordinary chef, Phillip Searle, who had cooked with Peter Jarmer at Reilly’s at the start of the 1980s, before Jarmer opened his restaurant Jarmer’s in Kensington. Searle went on to start Possums, in partnership with Barry Ross, who had been working with Cheong, until they moved to Sydney in 1985, where they opened Oasis Seros.

Searle’s checkerboard ice-cream (with pineapple, licorice and star anise flavours) is still considered a landmark dish.

The culinary spin-off from Neddy’s was extraordinary. For example, it was here that super-chef Tim Pak Poy first worked in a commercial kitchen. He stayed with Cheong for two years until cutbacks forced by the fringe benefits tax forced him to move to the much-acclaimed Claude’s in Sydney, where he cooked with Damien Pignolet and eventually took over as owner – to even greater acclaim.

Janet Jeffs, the first apprentice at Neddy’s, went on to cook at Possum’s with Phillip Searle, then at Kilikanoon in the Clare Valley, before becoming owner-chef of Juniperberry in Canberra.

Part of the mix, too, was Christine Manfield, who worked for more then a year with Cath Kerry at Petaluma and cooked private dinner parties (as had Kerry for a time).

In an interview with Mietta O’Donnell, Manfield explained Searle’s move to Sydney: “Adelaide is a really hard market, hard to crack, and Possums was too contemporary to crack it. It was very hard to get custom on a regular basis; the population is small and the market can be a bit fickle. Sydney is fickle too but on a bigger scale.”

The first Advertiser Good Food Guide, published in 1989, managed to catch much of this golden age, though by then Cheong had sold Neddy’s to Le Tu Thai and Kate Sparrow (and started teaching at Regency College), and Possum’s had closed. Nick Papazahariakis had closed the tiny Le Paris, where he believes he pioneered nouvelle cuisine ahead of Peter Jarmer – but he’d opened Chloe’s. There remained much to celebrate.

Peter Ward, Lew Kathreptis (co-owner/chefMezes), Maggie Beer (owner/chef The Pheasant Farm), Lewis Thyer (owner/chef GloBos), Gordon Parkes (with moustache, chef Jolleys Boathouse), Suzie Morris (now my wife), me, Philip Hardy (who helped with the wine) Ann Oliver (owner/chef Mistress Augustine’s), Cath Kerry (probably Bridgewater Mill), Peter Taylor Thyer’s partner at GloBos, Jan McKenzie (who managed Jolleys and was Gordon Parkes’ partner, now she runs Cafe Sydney), Michael ?? (then a law student and part-time waiter).

A photo taken in the kitchen of Nigel Hopkins (centre) in 1989, when three restaurant reviewers cooked for Adelaide chefs including Lew Kathreptis, Maggie Beer, Lewis Thyer, Gordon Parkes, Ann Oliver and Cath Kerry.

At Mistress Augustine’s, owner-chef Ann Oliver had taken on the creative mantle left behind when neighbouring Possum’s closed. Elaborate hand-drawn menus were offering home-made goat’s cheese baked in local olive oil, a splendid cassoulet and the confronting Chocolate Slut for dessert. Brigita Turniski was offering grilled octopus with fresh noodles and sesame and fresh coriander sauce at Mona Lisa’s Bistro (now Chianti Classico).

Cedric Eu, with second chef Michael Voumard, had inspired dishes at Mandarin Duck such as jasmine-smoked chicken salad or oysters in a tart with lemon beurre blanc.

At Duthy’s, owner chef Wayne Hargreaves was serving up boned quail on parsnip chips with a caper glaze, or rare duck breast with duck neck and pigeon sausage, and an orange and thyme glaze. Glo-Bo’s former customers still miss Lewis Thyer’s rich oyster stew with garlic bread, or his cassoulet with bone marrow brioche and peppered glaze.

The author’s personal favourite was Mezes, where former art teacher and owner chef Lew Kathreptis had taken his mother Zeffie’s Greek tradition and turned it on its ear with dishes such as octopus and squid stew with fresh black-peppered pasta and aioli, or chargrilled lamb with parsnip pastries.

And how many domestic chefs were inspired by Maggie Beer’s rustic cuisine at the Pheasant Farm, possibly Australia’s finest ever country restaurant? It never set out to be fine-dining, but dishes such as her salad of smoked kangaroo with keta caviar, or roast pheasant in a juniper marinade with an intense game glaze, were as fine an offering as Brillat-Savarin could wish for.

Probably the most refined cooking in the city at that time was from Urs Inauen, executive chef at the Fleurieu restaurant at the Hyatt Regency. This was not the stuff of a hot gastronomic thriller, but immaculate, finely detailed dishes composed with watchmaker’s precision.

The Grange restaurant at the Hilton, pre-Cheong, was struggling, but at Nediz Tu Cheong’s successors, Le Tu Thai and Kate Sparrow, were making the soufflé rise twice with dishes such as a mille-feuille of scallops with coriander butter sauce, or quail stuffed with sticky rice, chestnut and Chinese sausage and baked in a lotus leaf. Le’s mother’s Vietnamese soups were astonishingly good.

But it didn’t last.

The retreat from conspicuous spending at lunch, due to the fringe benefit tax, helped stimulate the growth of Italian-style corner cafes throughout the city. Menu ingredients that were once considered exotic had become commonplace and the cafes seemed to fill the gap nicely and very economically, even though cooking of any quality was, and still is, rare.

It led, in effect, to a dumbing down of restaurant dining through much of the 1990s and even well into the 2000s, but happily with quite a few exceptions.

So where to next?

There’s been a dramatic change in the past decade, just as there has been among our winemakers, where a burgeoning of new labels, varieties and styles has helped stimulate Adelaide’s restaurant scene.

The introduction of the small-bar liquor licence in 2013, like the Dunstan-era introduction of pavement dining, opened the door further to more innovative entrepreneurs, drink masters and chefs.

While many struggling restaurateurs lament that our market is overcrowded and all that Adelaide needs is another half million people or so – and there’s probably some truth in that – the evidence is that if you’re good, the price and value equation is right, and you’re in touch with what your customers want, you can do well. There are now plenty of restaurants, bars and cafes proving that.

South Australia again has a roll call of innovative, incredibly talented chefs – Duncan Welgemoed, Jock Zonfrillo, Scott Huggins, Paul Baker, Jordan Theodoros, Andrew Davies, Emma McCaskill, Matt Fitton, Lachlan Colwill, David Swain… the list could go on.

It’s tempting to believe that Adelaide has entered a second golden age, and provided the dining public is prepared to provide adequate support we will continue to have restaurants that properly reflect South Australia’s extraordinary riches in produce and wine.

This is an edited and updated version of an article Nigel Hopkins wrote in 2006 for Bibliophile. The author acknowledges the assistance provided by Susan Bitter’s Bachelor of Economics (Honours) thesis on the Adelaide Restaurant Industry (University of Adelaide, May 1977).

The Adelaide Festival’s Riverbank Palais Long Lunch Series next month will feature chefs Cheong Liew, Cath Kerry, Christine Manfield, Mark Best, Michael Ryan and Karla Firla. Each will create a three-course menu through which they will share their own culinary story and pay tribute to the culinary revolution of the 1980s.

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