Earlier this week I wrote about how despite the fact that both Americans and Australians speak English, we sometimes speak different versions of it. Similarly, we both have lips and tongues and teeth and tastes buds and we probably equally enjoy meeting our friends for coffee and eating out, but dining in Miami and dining in Melbourne are very different experiences. Here’s a little guide to eating out in Melbourne.
I’m certain that Melbourne has some exquisite restaurants, the kind with maître d’s with French accents and mustached men that place a fine linen napkin on your lap for you. I don’t go to those restaurants. I’m talking about your average cafes, pubs, and restaurants, the kind that line the many fabulous laneways in the CBD, the kind where you meet your friends and book club, not your Japanese business client.
The first thing to know is that dining in Melbourne is, for the most part, not a quiet, private affair. Many cafes and restaurants are tiny, with tables very close together, and long tables where different parties sit together. Be prepared to hear almost every conversation going on except yours.
The second thing to know is that you don’t need to tip. Servers here earn a normal wage and do not depend on tips. You can leave a tip if you want, but it’s neither necessary nor expected. This is good for the server, but not so great for the customer. It is highly unlikely you will receive the kind of restaurant service you’re used to in the USA.
Truth be told, dining in Melbourne is always something of a mystery to me. I haven’t worked out all the rules and the adventure begins on arrival. In some restaurants, you should wait to be seated while in others you can just walk in and sit where you want. The problem is I can never tell which is correct at most eateries. You’d think there’d be a sign, but, more often than not, there isn’t. So, ask if you can go ahead and sit or if you should wait to be seated.
Once you sit, a server may or may not appear. If they don’t appear, that means they’re not going to bring you a menu. This could mean one of two things: everything the restaurant offers is written on a board somewhere or you have to go to the counter and fetch your own menu.
Regardless of whether a server comes to your table or not, you may not be served water. Water is the melange of Australia. For those of you that are slightly less nerdy than I am, melange or “spice” is the extremely rare and valuable fictional drug from the science fiction series Dune. Anyway, servers don’t generally just bring you water. Chances are you’ll have to ask for it and when you run out, you’ll probably have to ask for more. Sometimes there’s a table with bottles of water and you can grab one for your own table or sometimes there are pitchers from which you can fill and refill your glass. The water is often room temperature.
A lot of cafes and smaller restaurants require that you order at a counter. Order, pay, and you’ll receive a number for your table so the server knows where to bring the food. If you get table service, you may still need to pay at the counter at the end of your meal.
Let’s talk about food.
Food in Melbourne is like food anywhere else – some of it is exceptional, some of it is average, and some of it is barely edible; you take your chances. Looks are highly deceiving in Melbourne. Some crazy-looking places have great food and some elegant or trendy restaurants turn out to be average, even mediocre. There are some basic things you should know:
A lemonade is a Sprite. A traditional lemonade is a lemonade. I really have no idea how Australians arrived at this classification.
Lemon, Lime, and Bitters is divine. Do we have this non-alcoholic cocktail in the USA? We should; it’s delicious and refreshing. Order one.
Chips are potato wedges and fries, but sometimes they’re also chips, which are called crisps.
Tomato sauce is ketchup. That’s pronounced to-mah-toe, not to-may-toe. Potatoes are still pronounced po-tay-toes.
Jelly is flavored gelatin, like Jell-O, not fruit preserves, which is jam.
Chicken parma sounds familiar, but the Australian version is a pub classic consisting of a really thin piece of chicken (called schnitzel) topped with melted cheese and tomato sauce. Sometimes it also has ham on it. The important thing to know is that, unlike in the USA, it’s never served with pasta, but rather with salad or chips (meaning French fries).
A salad is usually rocket (arugula) with a few pieces of tomatoes and maybe onions and cucumber. There’s never any dressing.
A burger with the lot (with everything) includes beetroot and egg.
For some reason, in North America, we decided that an entrée is a main dish, but in French cuisine, the word describes a dish served before the main course or in between courses. In Australia, an entrée, or starter, comes before the main course; the word appetizer isn’t really used here.
Melbourne fancies itself a sophisticated coffee city, but Americans will be disappointed to discover only about five drinks on the coffee menu: the short black is a single shot of espresso; the long black is a double-shot of espresso and hot water; the flat white is like a latte; the latte is like the flat white; and the cappuccino, which is like the latte and the flat white, but with more froth. Although limited, the coffee is often quite good. You may also find chai (hot only), hot chocolate (which should really be called lukewarm chocolate), and iced coffee, which contains ice cream and is more of a treat than a coffee beverage you can have daily. Drip coffee, iced coffee (the kind over ice), and flavored coffee drinks are virtually unheard of here. Thank goodness for Starbucks, but there aren’t many of them around and the menu isn’t as extensive as those of its American counterpart. There are also some good specialty coffee and chocolate shops that offer more variety.
A milkshake is just flavored milk. A thick shake is a milkshake. As I mentioned above, iced chocolate and iced coffee are like milkshakes.
Skip the cocktails. They are ridiculously overpriced and I can count on one hand how many good ones I’ve had. Stick to wine and beer when eating out.
Awesome Aussie foods to try include fish and chips, kangaroo steaks, lamingtons, sticky-date pudding, and all manner of sweets, not to mention all the wonderful Mediterranean and Asian food. There is some good Mexican and Spanish, but, sadly, that’s it for Latin food.
Aussie foods to try so you can reject: Vegemite, sausages, sausage rolls, meat pies, and Pavlova.
Aussie food to try if you’re adventurous: witchetty grubs.
Napkins come in a close second to water in scarcity. Most cafes and restaurants will give you a single napkin – or serviette, as Aussies say – and, for some bizarre reason, they often place the food on it so it arrives to you soiled. Ask for more napkins if you need them.
The challenge with asking for more water and napkins is that Melbourne servers won’t often (or at all) come around to see how you’re doing and if you need anything. Remember, they don’t work for your tips. While many servers are friendly and attentive, many others are completely indifferent. On the bright side, it’s likely that different servers will wait on you rather than just one so it’s acceptable to flag down any server you see.
Just like in the USA, depending on how busy the restaurant is, you may be quickly shuffled out to free the table or, if it’s slow, you may be able to linger and chat with your mates. If you didn’t pay when you ordered your meal, the server may or may not bring the bill to your table at the end. If s/he doesn’t, then go to the counter to pay. You may have to tell the cashier what you had. In Miami, I rarely carried much cash with me, but in Melbourne, I always do. Most cafes and restaurants accept credit cards, but not all, and some have minimums or processing fees.
I’ve heard a lot of American expats say that dining in Melbourne is not a pleasant experience. They find it too expensive, the food mediocre, the restaurant too crowded and loud, the service poor, and let’s not even get started on the parking problem. My Australian partner dislikes eating out, but I enjoy trying new places and I love getting together with a friend over coffee or a nice meal. However, I do think that dining in Melbourne is far more inconsistent than eating out in Miami. For example, we order pizza from the shop around the corner almost every week and it’s different every single time; sometimes it’s good, sometimes it really bad. You just never really know what you’re going to get in Melbourne and that can be problematic. I’m willing to take the risk because, being fairly new to Melbourne, I’m still figuring it out and finding my favorites eateries.
How’s your experience been eating out in Melbourne? Do you have any favorite places?