It was a big restaurant on the northwest corner of the busiest intersection in Melbourne. I pulled out of four solid lanes of northbound traffic and into the truck layby, and off that into the car park the restaurant shares with a Hungry Jacks. We got out. The air was full of flame-grilled whopper just to get you started, and it worked just as well for customers of the restaurant.
The restaurant is set back from the road and there are cane tables and chairs and sun umbrellas outside, in case you want to watch Kenworths hauling B-doubles up the last part of Sydney Road where it becomes the Hume Highway while you eat your pizza. We went inside. Thomas led the way and didn't stop at the sign that read Please Wait Here To Be Seated near the pizza bar, but marched right on in. The front of house guy laughed because he was talking on my mobile phone to his Much Older Sister and he looked like a business executive off to a power lunch at Florentino’s.
The place is a warren flowing around a central bar and kitchen. It could seat hundreds. Windows on three sides give you road views. My preferred view is the east side across the never-ending stream of haulage to Campbellfield Plaza, but you might like the south window where, if you sit facing west, or turn your head, you get a tangential view across the Upfield train line, rails bronzed in the sunset, and empty fields beyond.
The building is a freestanding 1960s heap that once housed a chain pizza or burger cafe. You can sit in your booth with a glass of wine and identify pieces of 1960s/1970s junk architecture still embedded like fossils into the made-over design. These include a faux terracotta tiled roof over the cabana-style kitchen section. The pizza bar has a thatched roof, and its fascia wall features a painted life size laurelled reclining naked figure, Roman feast-style. Lighting is diffused under about an acre of white opaque plastic. Neon red zigzags around the entire building. The carpet is purple-red Axminster. Wine glasses hang upside down on their bases around the transom of the central bar. Stools line one side of the bar in case you have to wait for a table. The ambience is family babble and background music and the bang of the bell from the kitchen and a low Kenworth growl, like tigers in the bushes outside. For all that, the booths and the carpet mean the noise level here is nothing compared to those bare timber places in the inner suburbs where they pack foodies in like sardines and charge them a fortune for a couple of bits of salami on a breadboard and call it assiette of charcuterie, and where one dropped fork on the floor is like a gun going off, and where bloggers photograph their dinners.
I retrieved Thomas from near the bar, and got the phone off him, and said goodnight to my dear sweet grown up girl who had called to wish me many happy returns and who could not be with us tonight as she was ill; and the front of house guy, still laughing at Thomas, led us around a few corners to a booth with high sides. These keep the children out of sight, if not out of earshot. You can’t have it all.
We sat down. Then the front of house guy stopped laughing and informed me sorrowfully, in a French accent, that the place was cash only tonight due to some bank glitch or other. No problem. I scanned the menu and chose something, and went outside and took a walk across eight lanes of traffic at the lights to Campbellfield Plaza, and used the cash machine, and was back in four minutes. By that time a drink was in front of me, a nice cold chardonnay in a glass just the right size, not big enough to drown in, and not too small enough to be filling up with indecent haste in a public place.
It’s a large menu here and there’s a specials board, and everything you could possibly want out of an Italian restaurant, and some things you wouldn’t expect, such as garlic snails. I was close to choosing the snails, just so I could show the children you really can eat snails, but I was in a vintage mood so I chose the filet mignon. Wait a minute, I thought. That’s three French references in a row. Maybe this is a French restaurant. This thought was interrupted.
How do you like it, the waitress asked.
Rare, I replied. Blue, in fact, I added.
I was going to ask, she said. Some people think rare is medium. I like to clarify it.
Wait staff who ask how rare you like rare are really on the ball. There’s a children’s menu, but the cardinal rule of children’s menus is never to order from them. They omit all the trimmings and the sprig of parsley, and children should eat in the same style as the adults anyway.
Then the waitress asked us if we would like the children’s meals brought out before ours, or we’d like them to all come out together. Some places you’re lucky to get any requests for co-ordination heard, let alone actively offered.
The meals came out in due course, in the order discussed. We ate. Tracy expressed with some degree of surprise that the gnocchi was house made. You can tell it’s house made because house made gnocchi, when it’s made very well, kind of floats up to meet you. The commercial stuff won't, because they sell it by weight, and the floating wouldn’t let them do that. Gnocchi that almost floats is one of the best dining experiences anyone could have, no matter what the sauce. The sauce was tomato. My filet was a fat ball of blue steak encased in a piece of good bacon and sitting on about twenty different vegetables, or maybe I’m exaggerating, and all good and none greasy. I don’t like grease, even those art-directed drops of coloured oil called infused that are supposed to be some kind of artistic culinary movement, but are just a stupid affectation made of grease. William ate my potatoes, bite-sized sectors of roasted tuber. He likes potatoes but won't touch a carrot, whatever the colour.
Later, for the boys, some kind of ice-cream, served in coconut halves. Coffee, short black, of course, and then outside. Macks and Western Stars still groaning in the heavy warm air on their endless northbound journeys to who knows where. We’re at the bottom of this continent and it’s nearly three thousand kilometres to Cooktown.
It was a good meal. Nobody photographed their dinner. Here, they photograph their children.
Cnr. Camp Rd. and Hume Hwy., Campbellfield