Stagnant restaurants

THEY were much more than places to eat, the restaurants that live in my memory after three decades. I’m not sure what it was, although certainly the food was important. Occasionally when I look through a list of drab choices in the Yellow Pages I wonder how they’d go if they were recreated.

There was The Etna in Hamilton’s Tudor Street near the intersection with Beaumont, run by Italian brothers, and the best food was not on the menu but in pots and a bain-marie and we’d point and ask. When The Etna moved from Hamilton to the Newcastle CBD and went upmarket the earthiness didn’t go with it. The Romance Cafe near the old Century Theatre at Broadmeadow’s nine-ways intersection seemed always to have a queue of people out the door waiting to order takeaway Chinese stir-fried with alacrity as they watched. Another queue led into Taco Bill’s Mexican restaurant in Darby Street, Cooks Hill, and for a while its processed food was the big new thing in Newcastle.

Food is subject to fad and fashion as much as anything, and the restaurant scene in the Lower Hunter has changed. Fine dining is scarce. Sweet-and-sour-pork Chinese has gone, at least in my Australia. Italian has gone as an ethnic food and is now the closest thing we have to a national cuisine. Bain-marie bistros have died or they look that way. Smorgasbords and other all-you-can-eats have retreated to pockets of grossness.

Steakhouses went not long after surf ’n’ turf became droll, mod oz was always an embarrassment of pretension and its towers or stacks have been replaced by drizzles and smears and beds of mash, pizzas became American fast food, Japanese fell victim to its meagreness, Thai is just hanging on, and the greatest creativity in restaurants that claim the high end is in the descriptions on the menu.

Where next for restaurants?

The time is ripe for the new vegetarian cooking that is approaching the level of cuisine. It’s moved from a solid, grainy, oily, daunting mass that has been the stuff of worthy cafes to light, colourful and startlingly tasty dishes that seem to be the better for the absence of meat.

But the biggest change may be in the notion of restaurant itself. We think of a restaurant as a fixed place, but I wonder if the so-called pop-up restaurants that appear overnight in temporary premises in some countries might make their way here. The spontaneity and adventure of a restaurant that springs up in a day would be an attraction, as would the local council’s bureaucratic efforts to close it. Closely related are the underground restaurants in private homes, with payment hidden as club fees or such, and guerilla restaurants that appear in a private home for just one or two nights. The hiring of chefs to cook for private dinner parties must be close to this. Mobile restaurants, in which a van with kitchen pulls up at a pre-arranged site, pre-paid guests set up their own tables and chairs and uncork the wine, sound like fun.

Do you agree that the dining-out industry is in the doldrums? Where next for restaurants?

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