It's always surprising to reflect on the youth and small beginnings of Canberra's cafe and restaurant scene, such that places like Gus's - and Charcoal, also in the city centre - have a kind of historic cache. Gus's, which opened in 1960, is known for being the first cafe in Canberra to bring outdoor dining, at the hands of Gus Petersilka in 1970, and such is this claim to fame that it has official heritage status. Which presumably means the claim as the first outdoor dining cafe is well-founded, which in turn seems inexpressibly odd. Did Canberrans really not eat outdoors until 1970? Was it really not until the 1970s that Canberra "acquired visible social vibrancy with the development of a cafe society", as the heritage register tells us?
Another thing that surprises me about Gus's is its illogical use of the possessive apostrophe. It doesn't, as I do here, add the final "s", so becomes the annoying Gus', which I have no idea how to pronounce.
But weird use of punctuation is far from an unusual thing in the restaurant business, and so this frustration I set aside, fully ready to experience what Canberra's first outdoor cafe - now well enclosed in a permanent footpath gazebo - has to offer.
Well, it has cafe food to offer, the kind you will find at so many neighbourhood cafes in Canberra, not especially sophisticated, not especially focussed.
It also offers some charming service - and this is the best thing about our evening - the kindness, willingness and sensibility of the young woman serving at our table, and the open, chatty charm of the guy at the till when we pay.
The menu traverses a wide field, from a steak sandwich, to a "fried chicken burger", steak and fries, mac and cheese, caeser salad and pasta, to more ambitious meals.
Salt and pepper calamari with chipotle aioli ($16.50) sits on a big bed of greens, but the calamari is unfortunately rather soggy. Crab tacos look more promising, with cabbage slaw, black bean and corn salsa, and chipotle aioli ($14.50), they have loads of heat in the beans and plenty going on with corn and avocado and cabbage to wrap in soft tortilla, but there's quite a load of fried crunchy strips on top which spoil the subtlety of the dish, and the bits of crab have also been fried.
Tomato and chorizo spaghetti ($22) could be welcome in its simplicity with the plentiful cherry tomatoes, spinach and basil, but again there's a lack of subtlety here in the big slices of chorizo, which don't integrate with the dish, and a heavy cream sauce that rather drowns out other flavours.
Our favourite dish is the sticky lamb ribs ($18). They're maple and soy glazed, with toasted peanuts, coriander, chilli and beanshoots, according to the menu, although we have a pile of rocket on our version. They're enjoyable. They're small cuts, which is an excellent thing with such a rich indulgent dish, they're crisp on top, very sweet and sticky, so fatty and wobbly, and served with rocket to cut through some of the richness. It's so good to have the simple glaze of maple syrup, without the awful smoke and barbecue sauce that pervades the rib offerings at far too many places around town.
Dessert lets things down. Green tea hot cakes are like large, fat floury pancakes, quite dry, served with a spicy pear jam which is ok in itself, and a yuzu custard, with a pile of not-very-pleasant pink fairy floss on top.
The pannacotta is much prettier to look at, but the coconut on top has been browned in a way that leaves a kind of burned-tyre taste, which we don't like at all. It's a shame because the pannacotta itself is delicate and creamy, and there are welcome chunks of fresh mango as well.
The wine list is very simple, a sauvignon, riesling, chardonnay and pinot grigio in the whites; and a couple of shirazes, a cabernet sauvignon, merlot, a pinot and a blend in the reds. Almost all of the wine is available by the glass. Joshua's Fault from Gundaroo is the local offering an, and there's a Chilean chardonnay, which we enjoy. This list is priced around $9 a glass and is sensible. Pours are very generous. This part of things works fine.
Gus's is no longer rare as an outdoor dining venue, they're dime a dozen. It's not unusual in its menu, and it's not unusual in the quality of its food. If it could be less generic in its modern-cafe offerings, perhaps more focussed on doing one or two dishes and doing them well, it could carve out a name for more than just its heritage status. But if you head along there at the moment, you might be satisfied enough if you approach it as a basic cafe and a place to catch up with friends over a drink, and if you have our experience you will be buoyed by the extra-friendly and accommodating service.
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