Often, when describing myself, I use the term ‘second generation restaurant critic.’ If it’s not strictly true, nor is it entirely untrue.
Today’s restaurant critic is – or should be – a critic in the best sense of the word. One who assesses and passes judgement based upon an accumulation of experience, taste and observation. A good critic is also a good writer, someone who can hold the object of criticism up to the light examine all its facets and come up with an original way of seeing it. That’s the ideal anyway. The restaurant critic can offer critical analysis or entertainment and often, successfully, both.
My mother, Gloria Newton, was not like that. She had a column in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph, then as now a tabloid, but not then as rabidly right wing as now. Her nom de plume was Elizabeth Pitt, and if you know where the Australian Consolidated Press Building is and was, you’ll know why. Her column was called ‘Goings on About Town’, and she reviewed restaurants and night clubs.
While not a critic in the formal sense of the word she was the first writer in Sydney to write the truth as she saw it. If she didn’t like it she said so, even though each piece wasn’t a lot longer than today’s tweets. There’s no doubt she was read. The owner of the notorious strip joint the Pink Pussy Cat, ‘Last Card’ Louis Benedetto, an associate of Sydney’s Mr Sin, Abe Saffron, was so delighted with her comments about his business that he gave her a little card, which I still have today, offering free entry to her and her friends. Why? Every time she slammed him, his business boomed.
When my father couldn’t come with her for whatever reason – didn’t want to, couldn’t, was away on business – I was dragged along. In my short pants and long socks – school uniform. Dressed like that, I met Sammy Davis Jr, Sal Mineo, Frances Faye as well as local luminaries Gordon Chater, Gwen Plumb, Noel Ferrier – all the greats of that time.
And then there were the restaurants. That was when it began, this curious and lifelong relationship. A relationship not, funnily enough, with the food, but with the feeling, the character, the mood of a public eating house.
The first restaurant I remember – as opposed to the night clubs, like Prince’s and Chequers – was a place called Rainaud’s in Queen’s Square at the top of King Street. I have no idea what we ate – I recall we went several times and not for a review, because my father was also there. Rainaud’s was a wholly Greek-owned business, the two names I can find associated with it are Vrakbnas and Andritzakis. And, much later, I reviewed a restaurant in Ramsgate called Omeros on the Beach and by the door, was an article that said that the owner was a descendant of Costa Omeros who had cooked at Rainaud’s
But what I do remember to this day is the weight of the cutlery and the thick, starched double damask table cloths. These emblems of a luxury, of cosseted opulence remain with me to this day.
There was an ante-room too, where my father would go after dinner and talk to – was it George? – the dark-panelled wooden walls of which were hung with photographs of race horses. And this is perhaps the key to our interest in the place. My father loved horses and horse racing. George, being an owner, probably gave him tips.
But for me this place was everything that home wasn’t.
Oh, we lived comfortably enough, at that time in small flat in Double Bay, and we ate well and at the table. But that cutlery! Those table cloths! It was another world and one in which I felt like snuggling up.
In another book, I quoted Frank Moorhouse who wrote ‘Paradoxically I am most at-home in a restaurant. No, this is wrong – more precisely I like being in a restaurant because it is where I feel not-in-any-way-shape-or-form at-home.’
So the first quality of restaurants which I will note is that sense of being coddled, wrapped in cotton wool and served. I’ve experienced that in my adult life. But only rarely. And it does have much to do with the quality of furnishings. I remember a review of breakfast at Galileo in the Observatory Hotel in Sydney. ‘As we entered’ I wrote, ‘we were led by our elegant white-coated waitress – Sin Im, her name tag tells us – to a long, polished walnut table against the back wall, balloon-back seats padded in an olive green and bronze colour scheme on one side and a padded and opulently cushioned banquette – more of a built-in sofa – along the wall.’ Sin Im returns with bright pink watermelon juices for the girls and orange and ruby grapefruit for us, and takes our food orders. “I feel so important,” whispers younger daughter, looking around at the room now slowly filling with hotel guests who have, lucky things, been sleeping in on their luxurious hotel beds.’
I described it as sumptuous and indeed it was. The other place that achieved this quality, without the accompanying formality and froideur was Tony Bilson’s eponymous restaurant, Bilson’s, also in a hotel, the Radisson Plaza, also in Sydney. Of this I wrote, in a story celebrating Tony Bilson’s 60th birthday and his fortieth year behind the stoves ‘It is one of Sydney’s most elegant dining rooms. White quarter paned windows look out onto Pitt Street and at this time of the year, the seasonally themed hanging mobiles flutter with ochre and russet Japanese papers. A duck egg blue private room….lined with Mike Parr self portraits faces down the long cream and brown room. A table groans beneath a tempting display of Armagnac, Calvados and Cognac.
That groaning table says it all. Temptation, indulgence. The very words Armagnac, Calvados and Cognac scream Cuban cigar smoke, heady fumes, full belly, lay back. At that level, you do feel ‘so important.’