This was originally published as a review in the Saturday Sydney Morning Herald. But I had to persuade the women sub editors to let it through. Only by arguing that it was not in favour of such places, but was merely reporting their existence and the kind of food they served did I prevail. Sadly such places – Twin Peeks one – still operate today.
Where did your husband have lunch today? Was he served by young ladies in lingerie? Did he pay one of them to remove her brassiere, sit on his lap, and feed him flummery?
There are now at least six of these what are now known as “lingerie restaurants” in Sydney. One woman even spoke to me of the “lingerie restaurant industry”. This is not exactly a new development. Blokes have sat around tables being served by scantily clad women and perving on dancing girls after lunch for quite some time now. Salome is probably the best known of the early lingerie waitresses, Tête de Jean Baptiste her most famous dish.
A feminist friend dismissed such places as “just another manifestation of male power” and “symbolic of male ‘ownership’ of women.” I’d say she was right. But the blokes at the lunches that I went to didn’t look capable of or desirous of such analysis. They just wanted to eat, drink, and look at women with few, if any, clothes on.
I also spoke to Lindal Lee Arnold (who, incidentally, has a BA in Economics and Behavioural Science from Macquarie University), managing director of LA girls, who supplies lingerie models for places like The Pitts in Pitt Street, and Maurizio’s at Wetherill Park. Here, the waitresses are dressed, but after lunch there is a parade of young girls wearing lingerie. Ms Arnold has a different perspective on this phenomenon – in her view “it’s total exploitation of the men – we charge them $50 each to see a parade. If the girls are getting well paid, surely it’s the customer being exploited.”
For my first experience of such male exploitation, I went to Twiggy’s, which is in a terrace in Woolloomooloo. The door is locked, you ring the bell, a little door behind a grille is pulled back, and if you pass muster, you’re ushered into a dingy room which looks like a 60s bistro. White tablecloths, solid wooden chairs, and drapes closed tight to keep out the light and prying eyes.
Surrealistically, all the tables are occupied by fully clothed men being served by young women in brassieres, G strings, garter belts, and high heels. The men look like husbands: fathers, grandfathers and uncles. At Twiggy’s it was mostly lower middle management, with a couple of Ralph Lauren striped shirt and bracers types from the money market.
At first, the atmosphere was subdued and nervous. Fascinating was that, although these men were quite patently here for the young women, they didn’t look at them. While orders were being taken, their eyes never left the waitress’s face. Later, one told me “they won’t look at us when we’re looking at them.”
The food is served with indecent haste to make way for the “entertainment”: three strippers. At Twiggy’s the first was one of the waitresses, and then two outsiders – there is now a lingerie lunch circuit for strippers. The food was more than perfunctory – which I’d been expecting – less than polished, but certainly professional. The menu is limited – four entrees and four mains, but again, no one was seen to complain.
Smoked salmon with a good house made horseradish – acceptably gritty and pungent; a chicken salad of juicy little chunks of grilled chicken on a bed of mizuna and mignonette studded with slivers of grilled red and green capsicum; a lamb loin of good quality, but overcooked and accompanied by a flowerlet of broccoli: neither restaurant was big on veggies. The short wine list yielded a Yarra Ridge Chardonnay and a ’91 Kalimna.
Cinders is a different story. Opulent, men’s clubby, with balloon back chairs, delft blue and rust red rooms, glass-fronted bookcases, and young ladies in collars and cuffs with transparent black mini skirts and white waistcoats which were discarded progressively through lunch. Here it’s senior management doing the ogling, MDs, CEOs and the like. That’s the way manager Alison Brooks likes it. At Twiggy’s it’s “Hi guys”, at Cinders it’s “good afternoon gentlemen.”
The real surprise at Cinders was the seriously good food. A superb mushroom soup with Thai flavours; delicious duck livers on corn cakes served with reduced pan juices; I was warned by a chef friend against saying that the tenderloin steak was the best I’d had in Sydney for yonks, so I won’t. The wine list was more intriguing than Twiggy’s, and even the desserts weren’t bad, although we did serve ourselves.
Later, I spoke to a senior executive who freely admitted to taking his clients regularly to Cinders. His explanation was that it was “a sort of a male thing, a bit like going to the football”, that he took the same clients to the opera – “horses for courses” – and when asked whether or not he felt that he was displaying primitive male sexist attitudes, replied, indignantly, “no, I don’t buy into this feminist argument. If there were a restaurant where men stripped off, women would go there.” There is. They do.
And finally, what of the waitresses themselves? Penelope (not her real name) began working nights as a topless waitress to supplement her income from a cosmetics company, and finally gave up her day job to work as a lingerie waitress. She doesn’t mind the job, but there are downsides. Firstly, there’s the disruption to her social life “I’m with men all day, I have to be nice to them and some of them are so awful, the last thing you feel like is men after work.”
Since Penelope has been working as a lingerie waitress, “none of the girls have ever been out with a guy from the restaurant – they can’t even touch us – if someone does grab you they’re thrown out.” It does bother her that they “have the audacity to give me their business card and ask me out when I’m being paid to sit on their knee.”
On the whole, as far as Penelope is concerned, it’s not a bad job. “We’re really well paid (about $16/20 an hour plus “megatips”), you don’t have to take your panties off – it’s just like what you’d wear at the beach.”
Amanda (her real name), the self styled “foreperson” at Twiggy’s, who described herself as never having been a “clothes kind of person”, told me that she “would love to do exactly what these men are doing, not because of equality, but because I’d love to see guys walk around in next to nothing and eat nice food.”
What does it all mean? Let me offer the bullfight analogy. I went to my first bullfight expecting to hate it and loved it. This worried me enormously, and made me feel very guilty. I thought about it at length and came to the conclusion that, although I should have evolved beyond the primitive blood lust that the bullfight had unleashed in me, I hadn’t.
Well, the men who frequent lingerie restaurants (regulars go fortnightly) should have evolved beyond enjoying being served lunch by scantily clad women – but they haven’t. And as long as they haven’t, there’ll be people out there, men and women, exploiters or exploited, to take their money. At least they’re eating well.
(Both places offer food at a fixed price of $55.00 plus drinks, the average spend is around $120 a head.)