From being an army-trained cook I became a foodie, combining eating out in restaurants with creating dinner parties at home. As a writer, who would write for anyone about almost anything, I started to write about the food I was eating. In the 1960s, in a Canberra of 45,000 people, there wasn’t much choice in restaurants, but nonetheless in 1967 Canberra Consumer decided to to do a book on Eating Out in Canberra, and asked the Canberra Wine and Food Club, of which I was the Foodmaster, to act as inspectors.
In this Centenary year of our capital city, it is worth noting what has happened in the food and wine area in the last fifty years, if not the past century. To read that 1967 book now is to smile in memory: $1.30 for a dozen oysters, 30c for a glass of wine, a lobster dish for $2.65. On the whole, despite the apparently cheap prices, we were unimpressed by what was on offer. The best places in 1967 were the Bacchus Tavern (underground in Hobart Place), Noah’s in the Civic Travelodge and the Hotel Canberra. There were very few restaurants that were not part of a hotel or motel.
In 1970 we did the job again, and were once more unhappy with what we were offered. ‘There is basic similarity about menus in Canberra,’ we wrote, ‘which depressed our testers’. Mind you, we agreed that this was true of Australian cities generally. ‘The fact is that Australian cuisine is distinguished by first quality ingredients and little imagination.’ But the city was growing, and there were more restaurants; on the whole we were more cheerful than we had been in 1967.
I spent the 1970s in Sydney and overseas, returning to Canberra in 1980. The city was a lot bigger, with more places to eat out in, and more people doing it. Leo Schofield was one of a number of writers who were taking good cooking seriously by considering it as an art form, in his columns in the Sydney Morning Herald, and in his annual Good Food Guides. In time he added sections on eating in places other than Sydney, and I became the anonymous inspector for Canberra.
There had been considerable changes in Canberra. The old standbys of the 1960s had gone as the city grew up and out. Noah’s disappeared into another building, the Bacchus Tavern was no longer the place of choice. Now the names to conjure with were Hill Station Homestead out in the Hume industrial area, Jean-Pierre Le Carrousel on top of Red Hill, Nobbs in Manuka and Peaches in Campbell. Things were a lot better in terms of culinary imagination, too.
As the 1980s went on more and more new restaurants came on — Alanya in Manuka, EJ’s in Kingston, Pipi’s in Woden, Chez Moustache in Narrabundah, Fringe Benefits in Civic — the last patronised, at least once when I was there, by Peter Walsh, the Minister for Finance, who caused great distress in the restaurant business when he introduced the fringe benefit tax.
By now any decent restaurant would offer you dishes based on French cuisine, something with an Asian flavour, fish that was other than fried, sauces of high quality, and desserts that would have been acceptable in Europe. Gone were ham and pineapple, chicken kiev and any canned vegetables. The city was beginning to have restaurants specialising in Italian, French, Indonesian, Turkish, Vietnamese and other national cuisines. Something called ‘fusion’ and something called ‘contemporary Australian cuisine’ were the coming styles.
In 1997 the Canberra Times put out its own Good Food Guide, and I, no longer anonymous, reported on Jamesons on the Pier, still one of the best seafood restaurants in Australia. It is not, of course, in Canberra but in Canberra-by-the-sea, Batemans Bay. That book reported on about 170 restaurants, and its editors picked out Chairman and Yip, Juniperberry, Ottoman, and Mezzalira. Later would come Aubergine, Courgette and many others.
Just as Noah’s and Bacchus went, so too did Nobbs, and Peaches and others that were loved in their day. It is a chancy business, the restaurant, overheads are high, and good chefs are mobile. But there was one restaurant that we reviewed in 1967 which never left the list, and is still flourishing today: Charcoal Restaurant in Civic. It was about grilled steak at the beginning, and it still is: ‘strictly for the carnivorous’, said the 1997 editors. I remember some great lunches there, where excellent red wine accompanied gigantic T-bone steaks perfectly presented.
My own judgment, given that over the years I have had to eat out a lot for my work, and all over our country, is that the quality of the best Canberra restaurants is as good as you could get anywhere. Of course, you can pay a lot more in the top Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide restaurants, and you might eat there dishes you could not eat anywhere else. But that is another matter.
Beyond a certain point you cannot really get any more value for money in eating just by paying more and more. You can pay just to be there, and you can pay for the view, and you can pay to be where someone famous is said to be. But the food ought to be central, and Canberra’s restaurant do an excellent job at what seems to me a good price.
I ought to have said that from the 1990s onwards restaurants have been offering more and more wine that has been produced in the Canberra region, and the same thing has happened wherever wine is produced. That has occurred mostly since the 1970s, which is about the time our oldest local vineyards were established.
And ours is such good wine. Tim Kirk of Clonakilla, who can stand as the purveyor of Canberra’s best red, wants to imprint on people’s minds that Canberra is the Shiraz capital of Australia, because our cool-climates wines have an elegance and quality that is unmatched anywhere.
I think he’s likely to be successful.