Once upon a time, many years ago, there was only one cafe in Brunswick Street north of Johnson Street.
Go on, laugh in disbelief. They all do. But it’s true. There were haberdashers and grocers and butchers and blacksmiths and typewriter repair shops (I had mine repaired there once, the ’ didn’t work so if you typed Today’s Specials it would come out as: Today8s Specials) and offices of the type that had an entrance of frosted glass panels on which was printed the business name in black lettering with a thin gold outline, leading to a timber-lined anteroom with green linoleum on the floor and a bare counter with a bell for service and a transom over the doorway to the inner office. Insurance agents, accountants, coin dealers, that kind of thing.
Then it was the 'eighties and no-one needed grocers or butchers or coin dealers any more and the insurance agents retired and all the frosted glass panels and timber counters were ripped out and the offices were turned into cafes which is why people didn’t need grocers and butchers any more.
At first, there was only Baker’s. OK, there was a milkbar and a fish and chip shop and a couple of burger joints, but Baker’s was the first of the new wave of cafes. Then Mario’s opened next door and there stood two of the very best cafes Melbourne had ever seen, cheek by jowl right there next to each other, two and three doors up from the Johnson Street corner. You could see people hesitating out the front, unable to decide which to enter.
Baker’s was my regular: a quick coffee and a toasted sandwich over the papers in the morning after dropping my children at school and before launching into my workday. Or I’d whiz up Brunswick Street for lunch, lentil soup and some crusty bread, maybe spaghetti carbonara and maybe some of their cold apple cake with cream afterwards. A man's gotta eat. In those days I was newly single with children and not into going out for dinner so I made a habit of getting takeaways from Bakers on Sunday nights: usually Gnocchi Provencale, a side salad, some bread and some of their chocolate rum torte to finish. I don’t know who supplied their chocolate rum torte but I’ve been looking for it ever since.
Gnocchi Provencale, Baker's Cafe-style.
Sweat the following ingredients in a pan over a very low heat: fifteen walnut halves, half a chopped red pepper, half a chopped green pepper, a dozen or so fat black pitted olives, half a dozen chopped button mushrooms, a cup of frozen peas and a chopped onion. Alternatively, sauté the onion first in some oil.
Now add a can of diced tomatoes with their juice and half a cup of white wine along with some chopped parsley and a chopped chile if you want some heat. Simmer for half an hour and adjust fluid if necessary.
Cook your gnocchi and spoon the sauce over the top. The walnuts give it a robust, meaty texture and flavour. Vegetarians go crazy over this. Everyone goes crazy over this.
Don't forget plenty of grated parmesan over the top.
Baker’s moved to the other side of Brunswick Street in the early nineties - about two hundred metres down. It remains there to this day, but in name only. It serves tapas.