We are what we eat

November 1997

For restaurants, times are tough at the top.

As ex-restaurateurs it's tempting to blame the critics for this state of affairs, and with all the words written recently about the closures of some of Melbourne's finest restaurants, you might agree.

But, can restaurant critics really change the world? On reflection, I think not.

Others suggest that market forces are responsible for closing our best restaurants and, of course, there is something in this position. But, it is not the whole truth. After all, the death of 'fine dining' and the rise of 'cafe culture' is a world wide phenomenon. For example, though Sydney may be less affected by the financial downturn of the early 1990s than Melbourne, the same trends are apparent, just as they are in Paris, New York and Tokyo.

So what is driving the stampede from restaurants to cafes?

To understand the reasons we must look at what these different situations provide.

The 1980s was the last hurrah for grand restaurants and for capitalism as we knew it. Then customers demanded space in which to lean back and, with an expansive gesture, call for, "another bottle of Dom". It is what restaurants do well -- provide the diner with a sense of his (and occasionally her) own importance and individuality.

Today's cafes do something completely different. There we are, squashed, head down, elbows in, eating salad leaves washed down with water. We shout above the crush of humanity to get our orders heard. As Roy and HG would say, "This is Living", and the result is a deafening conformity.

The situations are as different as the times. The 1980s were the age of the free wheeling, intensely individualistic entrepreneur. The 1990s smile on huge trans-national companies but ignore the plight of the 'downsized' wage and salary earner whose job is the victim of some grim global whim.

We are convinced that it is this, the disappearance of the old certainties that is creating the mood of the moment. Now that governments are so dominated by the international money market they can no longer rule their own nation. They certainly cannot protect the privacy of their citizens in a global economy.

We think that this has frightened the life out of us, and sooner than recognise this truth we huddle together in crowded noisy cafes, seeking comfort in the warmth of human contact.

Well, there's nothing wrong with that.

The problem is that the proliferation of cafes, each a clone of the other, is homogenising the experience of dining out, until we are in danger of losing the top-end of the restaurant industry. If that happens, we also lose a range of skills and craft training that is essential to the future of the hospitality industry -- at all levels.

But it is cyclic. When we entered the industry in the early 1970s, we ran a simple BYO -- the forerunner of today's cafes. But only a few years earlier Mietta's family closed their restaurant Mario's, an establishment regarded as being in the forefront of 'fine dining' in Melbourne. Perhaps unconsciously we were reacting against this Melbourne restaurant icon. Certainly we felt that we were doing something new and creative. Of course, we weren't. It was just the arrogance of youth. Mietta's grandparents' original restaurant was as simple as ours and would have suffered from the same problems, strengths and weaknesses as we did.

It was with a certain irony that we reflected, when we closed Mietta's on New Year's Eve 1995, that the wheel had turned full circle, our restaurant had become what Mietta's grandparents' had been, and a whole new generation was starting to re-invent the restaurant wheel again, just as we had done twenty years before.

When the wheel turns again, and we become comfortable with the workings of world markets and the operation of the 'information age' we will again see our present gastronomic icons crumble, as they succumb to the mood of the times.

This was written by Mietta O'Donnell and her partner Tony Knox. Together they ran Mietta's from mid 1974 until the end of 1995. Mietta's sister Patricia O'Donnell continues to run Mietta's Queenscliff Hotel.

Stephanie's Restaurant which started in Brunswick Street in 1976 will close at the end of this year. Last week Paul Bocuse Restaurant at Daimaru closed.

Mietta O'Donnell & Tony Knox
Published in the Herald Sun Opinions Page on 8/12/1997
©Mietta's 1997