Retro food is back on the table as diners seek comfort in old-fashioned favourites.
During the lengthy 2021 Sydney lockdown, Phil Wood spent much of his spare time reading cookbooks. Specifically, Australian cookbooks of a bygone era. “My favourite was by Lady Flo,” says the chef with a chuckle, referring to Classic Country Cooking, the 1992 tome of Flo Bjelke-Petersen, the late wife of controversial Queensland premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen. “I really got into making scones. I was making scones every day. They’re just so good.”
Beyond filling in time during a quiet period, Wood’s cookbook readings had a higher purpose: to inform and inspire the menu for his new restaurant, Ursula’s Paddington, which opened in the inner Sydney suburb last October. The former Rockpool Bar & Grill chef decided that rather than filling his list with the usual collection of cutting-edge items, he would instead fashion dishes that combined contemporary cooking with old-school recipes and nostalgic ingredients. So onto Ursula’s menu he put, among other things, lamb with mint sauce and Brussels sprouts, snapper with Keen’s curry vinaigrette and golden syrup dumplings with rum-and-raisin malt cream. “I really think that having some familiarity with food is very comforting,” he says. “It’s like getting a big hug.”
Wood is not the only chef tapping into our collective yearning for the simplicity of yore through comfort food and home cooking. From vol-au-vents to pork chops, pasta carbonara to peach Melba, once-daggy dishes are popping up on fashionable menus across the nation. Chefs say part of the appeal of retro food is the pleasurable memories it triggers, including cherished recollections of elderly or late relatives, especially grandmas and aunts who may have been great home cooks.
Many new restaurants are even being christened with vintage women’s names, from Agnes in Brisbane to Audrey’s in Victoria’s Sorrento. Margaret, Neil Perry’s happening new Double Bay eatery in Sydney, is named after his beloved late mother and his menu also contains food flashbacks, including his famous Mirabelle-inspired prune and custard tart, a favourite of diners who have enjoyed Perry’s restaurants over the years.
In Canberra, chef James Viles evokes nostalgia of a different kind at his new restaurant, Wilma. “I grew up in regional Australia and in the town where I lived [Scone in NSW] there were three Chinese restaurants… and they all had the same menu,” he recalls. “I have just always loved that food. Whenever I go to a country town anywhere in Australia, the first thing I do is seek out the local Chinese place to eat. I absolutely love it.”
Viles has designed Wilma’s menu around a familiar Cantonese theme, emphasising traditional Australian-Chinese flavours and dishes including fried rice, Peking duck and pork char siu. “It’s bloody delicious food,” he says. “I want comfort food. I am now just chasing flavour – really, really good flavour. And that’s what you get with this kind of food.”
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Step back in time...
There’s comfort food of a different kind at this recently relocated Melbourne institution. Now in Prahran, this slice of Paris offers French classics served with flair. Go for ’80s flashbacks such as vol-au vent with champignons and truffled gruyère béchamel, pithiviers (like a luxe Gallic pie), steak tartare, creme brûlée, bombe Alaska and all your dream bistro dishes. No, these probably aren’t the dishes your folks called you to the table for as a kid but there’s a delectable familiarity here for anyone old enough to remember Australian restaurants before minimalism and fusion took hold.
Lucky Prawn at the Bob Hawke Beer & Leisure Centre, Sydney
Nobody symbolises 1980s Australia like Bob Hawke. And few people have ever been more partial to a schooner and a succulent Chinese meal than our late PM. At this new Marrickville Beer & Leisure Centre, the ’80s are everything, from the RSL-style tables and chairs to the Aussie-Chinese restaurant dubbed Lucky Prawn. Chef Nic Wong (Cho Cho San) collaborated on the menu, creating a full house of ’70s and ’80s classics, including spring rolls, prawn crackers, crispy skin chicken, sweet and sour pork, sizzling beef in black bean sauce, crab omelette and, obviously, fried rice. To drink, try the Hawke’s Lager – of course.
SK Steak & Oyster, Brisbane
This Fortitude Valley powervenuemay feel ultra-modern but its menu will transport you to the swinging ’60s supper clubs of your imagination. Chef Kelvin Andrews has constructed a list with a deep affection for the glamour of yesteryear. From the retro treasures seek out a prawn cocktail or a seafood platter – from the $70 offering with oysters, prawns, bugs and scallops to the $220 signature platter with added lobster, mussels, clams and crab cocktail. Other throwbacks include caesar salad, baked scallops, veal schnitzel and even potato gratin. Glorious.
Connie’s Italian Diner, Melbourne
Step inside this Russell Street newcomer and you may think you have landed in a Billy Joel song about New York Italian trattorias of the 70s. Find red-checked tablecloths, cosy leather booths and the scent of sizzling garlic drifting from the kitchen. A bottle of red is just a quick order away. Restaurateur Michael Madrusan (Bar Margaux, The Everleigh) named the place after his beloved nonna, Connie, and the dishes reflect the Italian famiglia tradition. Find generous bowls of love in spaghettini alle vongole, penne alle Norma and the mussel and clam hot pot with white wine broth.
LP’s Quality Meats, Sydney
A glide through the Instagram feed ofLP’s Quality Meatswill not only make you ravenous, it’s guaranteed to provoke a smile. The home of some of Australia’s best smallgoods, this Chippendale smokehouse, factory, deli, bistro and bar is not shy about recreating dishes from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. Rockmelon wrapped in prosciutto? A “pig’s head muffin” reminiscent of a sausage McMuffin? Hotdog with mustard and onion? Yes, yes and yes. It’s fun and delicious and the bistro offers some gloriously nostalgic choices, including brawn in aspic jelly with prune followed by warm madeleines to finish.
For many Australians, spring rolls, fried rice and chow mien are the flavour memories of childhood dinners out, from a time before Thai takeaway became the staple. At Wilma, chef James Viles has called on his own recollections of country town Chinese feasts to evoke a connection with our Asian food heritage. From smoky, fiery woks come dishes of Balmain bug with egg noodles, sesame, coriander and chilli or ma po tofu. Want something that takes you further back in time? Char siu pork is hot smoked and Mongolian lamb ribs are paired with Wilma’s “crack seasoning”.
The Tropic, Gold Coast
The Pink Poodle motel exists only in Gold Coast Highway folklore these days but its irrepressible spirit lives on at this candy-hued restaurant overlooking Burleigh Heads beach. The Tropic occupies part of Burleigh Pavilion, one of the Coast’s beach-hugging buildings, and references the bubblegum glam of 1950s Surfers Paradise. There are retro mint-green bucket seats and pastel-pink tiles and tables, not to mention a bird’s-eye view of the surfers who play in the turquoise waves. On the plate, executive chef Guillaume Zika (ex Cottage Point Inn, Sydney) offers a contemporary seafood-focused menu that includes that enduring Gold Coast favourite, the cold seafood platter.
Continental Bistro, Sydney
The team behind Continental Bistro– underpinned by key players Elvis Abrahanowicz and Joe Valore – has always expressed a love of 1950s and ’60s lifestyle, food and fashion in its brilliant restaurants, including Porteño and Bastardo in Surry Hills. At this CBD venue, there’s an emphasis on comfort food with European panache. Go for a soul-satisfying roasted half chicken with sweetcorn and silverbeet or textbook steak frites. Then there’s a rum baba to finish, not to mention an emphasis on classic cocktails (try the Mar-tinny) that will make you believe you’re on the set of Mad Men. It’s reassuringly familiar, yet grand.
Nieuw Ruin, Fremantle
There’s nostalgia of a different kind at this neighbourhood wine bar and bistro, where food is served on vintage crockery and the atmosphere is literally steeped in the walls of the 150-year-old heritage cottage. A spin-off by the team behind long-standing Perth bar Foxtrot Unicorn, Nieuw Ruin offers a list of independent, small-batch wines, served alongside a local, produce-focused menu of rustic dishes, including cheese and cauliflower pie with French onion gravy. The frontier town vibes are strong and the food and drinks are a winning combination.
Ursula’s Paddington, Sydney
When Phil Wood added a dish called flummery to the menu atUrsula’she concedes “it took a while to take off”. Flummery, he explains, is a Depression-era pudding that combines evaporated milk and jelly for a sweet treat. “People ended up loving it.” From the crystal table lamps that throw shadows on the clothed tables to the terrace house location with its deep ochre walls, Ursula’s is a pleasurable step back to another era. The menu, while contemporary in technique, pays homage to Australian heritage dishes, including Sunday roasts and classic desserts.
Di Stasio Pizzeria, Melbourne
The Di Stasio name is synonymous in Melbourne with old-fashioned excellence in Italian cuisine and that continues at the group’s newest venue,Di Stasio Pizzeriain Carlton. With a room that has strong ’70s vibes – terrazzo flooring, retro furniture and a quaint alfresco space – the menu is a journey through pure Italian comfort food. You can order a perfect margherita, of course, or share the love with lasagne, bombolotti carbonara and spaghetti vongole – offerings that will remind you of the red sauce and family meals of your childhood.
For many, the ’90s seems like yesterday but for a new generation, it evokes childhood memories of when Power Rangers was on TV and mobile phones were still a novelty. In Mt Lawley, a group of next-gen Italo-Aussies are launching this ’90s-focused Italian restaurant. Chef and co-owner Christopher Caravella says he wants to “capture a little bit of the magic and madness of growing up in a big, loud Italian/ Italo-Australian family”. Caravella has teamed with a bunch of hospitality pals to launch the venue in June 2022 and says the group plans to “put some fun back into an Italian dining scene”. Expect dishes like a reworked carbonara (with curried egg) and homemade salumi that’s a throwback to the days when sausages were hanging in their parents’ garages.
Chef Tristan Rosier had already named a restaurant after his grandfather, Arthur, so when it came to his second Surry Hills venue, it was only right that it be called Jane for his grandmother. But this time, Rosier has taken things a step further by styling the dining room after the look of his grandparents’ 1970s home. Think brown corduroy banquettes, mid-century dark wood dining chairs and flower-stamped tiles. The mostly contemporary menu also dishes up a dollop of nostalgia on a dessert list studded with old faithfuls made new, from sticky persimmon pudding to Meyer lemon sorbet with Earl Grey cream, plus “Jane’s pink cake”, a play on grandma’s favourite sponge. Nice.
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Image credit: Lillie Thompson (Entrecote); David Chatfield (SK Steak & Oyster); Pew Pew Studio (Wilma); Con Poulos (Continental Bistro); Niki To (Ursula's); Kristofferson Paulsen (Di Stasio Pizzeria); Nikki To (Jane).