Toasting the hosts behind Melbourne's iconic restaurants
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Toasting the hosts behind Melbourne's iconic restaurants

France-Soir, Flower Drum, Caterina’s, the Waiters Restaurant. If you don’t know these restaurants and call yourself a Melburnian, you’re on as shaky ground as not having pledged allegiance to an AFL team. They are the dining icons of this city. Alongside, of course, Pellegrini’s.

Master host Sisto Malaspina at Pellegrini's.

Master host Sisto Malaspina at Pellegrini's.

If you somehow didn’t know about Pellegrini’s before the life of co-owner Sisto Malaspina was claimed in the tragic events of last Friday, you must now.

The outpouring of grief for the suavest barista in the business since 1974 has been immense, bridging all socio-economic, racial and generational divides.

For 64 years Pellegrini’s has not simply been our landmark espresso bar and pasta provider but a safe haven and home for everyone and anyone. Malaspina was a huge part of what made it so.

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The tributes tell the story. The diners making their pilgrimage back since reopening couldn’t be more different, but their stories read much the same: “This was my first restaurant.” “They know my name.” “It’s as familiar as if I was going back to my childhood home.”

The lesson therein is obvious but often forgotten. Pellegrini’s and its peers, the restaurants that have clocked not years, but decades in a city of thousands of competitors, where the average restaurant lifespan is five years, owe their legacy to the faces behind them.

Father and son team of the Flower Drum restaurant, Anthony and Jason Lui.

Father and son team of the Flower Drum restaurant, Anthony and Jason Lui. Credit:Eddie Jim

Jason Lui, son of Flower Drum’s founding and enduring chef Anthony Lui, runs the floor as a relative newbie at 18 years of service among a crew who can mostly count over 20 years on the job.

If you thought restaurant booking systems that capture preferences were a creepy Black Mirror development, they are nothing compared to this crew’s memories. Flower Drum regulars will be sat where Lui knows they like it, light or dark. Left-handed regulars arrive to find glasses positioned as needed. Lemon chicken, long off the printed menu, is always possible (well, if possible).

The relationship goes both ways. Pellegrini’s loyal multi-generational custom means the owners haven’t advertised in decades, except in their children’s school newsletters.

Caterina Borsato of Caffe a Cucina, a Melbourne stalwart for more than two decades.

Caterina Borsato of Caffe a Cucina, a Melbourne stalwart for more than two decades.Credit:Simon Schluter

When Caterina Borsato failed to secure a bank loan for her lunch-only Italian stronghold, Caterina’s, despite having the successful Borsato bistro behind her, her loyal following crowdfunded the purchase.

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She held a book launch this week for a long-standing customer. “You’ve fed me for 23 years,” he told her. “I want this to go to you.”

Before chefs (celebrity or otherwise) claimed the spotlight, loyal patronage was always down to the unwavering vision of the proprietors.

In the 1980s, Fanny’s, and its offshoot Glo Glo’s, was the domain of the shoulder-padded heroine of society dining, Gloria Staley.

She hired chefs to cook menus she devised, which meant absolute consistency – a common thread in venues that persevere. Few could faithfully recall all who rattled the pans.

No one will forget the woman who made them feel important. The same proprietor-led model still lives at Di Stasio and France Soir.

The promise of the new is exciting. But chasing it feels as hollow as going on endless first Tinder dates.

Jean-Paul Prunetti and Geraud Fabre from France-Soir.

Jean-Paul Prunetti and Geraud Fabre from France-Soir.Credit:Pat Scala

There’s a reason you’ll always find those same hospitality legends, restaurant critics and committed diners spending their down time downing bottles over steaks at France Soir in the hands of Jean-Paul Prunetti, or sinking negronis at Gerald’s Bar.

Our iconic restaurants are always those captained by tastemakers and experts at making customers feel good. Staley set the bar for fashion and to be acknowledged by her was to exist.

Gerald Diffey and Mario di Ienno of Gerald's Bar.

Gerald Diffey and Mario di Ienno of Gerald's Bar.Credit:Eddie Jim

Gerald Diffey, vinyl king, and Mario di Ienno, wisecrack sage, set a scene at Gerald’s Bar like few can. The lonely are never left so. The broody will be silently given their wine, but watched in case they want to talk.

At France Soir you’ll learn what it is to drink correctly. You will get your bread with a flirt. The moves are so smooth they’re often invisible. And all these values run through staff who are often lifers.

A lesson here, though. That’s a privilege diners have to earn.

TripAdvisor heroes decreeing places “Disappointing! Over-hyped!” generally come once, with expectations of getting it all on the first date.

Sisto Malaspina was kind to everyone, but to regulars he was family. Were you one of them? Do you wish you had been?

Maybe you can't afford to be a regular at Flower Drum. But our city is rich in restaurants at the high end and low, led by incredible captains of industry.

Don’t miss out on the joy of supporting those who truly give their all.

Gemima Cody is a restaurant critic for The Age.

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