Melbourne possesses a clutch of utterly reliable institutions, like any self-respecting food town, that attract clientele who come back year after year. As the city and its food scene has grown enormously, some things never change and old favourites like Cafe Di Stasio, France Soir, Il Bacaro and Matteo’s attract a loyal, committed clientele, often following their parents who did the same.
“Dining at Di Stasio,” says Good Food "can feel deliciously like being on the Oscar-winning, sparkling Italian movie set of The Great Beauty. “White-jacketed waiters, fashionable clientele, linen tablecloths, an expansive wine list and owner Ronnie’s big personality add up to laughter, enjoyment and that favourite word of restaurateurs: regulars.” Run by its eponymous owner, Ronnie Di Stasio, the restaurant has “a look, a mood, a culinary approach that is subtly tweaked and refined every day of the year,” says one of the country’s most respected food writers, John Lethlean, in The Australian. “It could only be the product of people who simply love the culture of the restaurant,” writes Lethlean. “The restaurant’s style blends modernity and tradition in a way few manage. Expensive, rich, generous and blissfully ignorant of trends. Waiters with licence to thrill. One of Australia’s great, louche dining establishments.”
France Soir in South Yarra is another such Melbourne institution. Occupying a long, mirror-lined room that is “busy as a train carriage at peak hour,” France Soir is more than a neighbourhood hero with sharp service, says Good Food. “For a quarter-century it has done a thriving trade in the classics: bubbling onion soup or juicy, charred steaks with a gravy boat of bearnaise.” It’s the kind of place where regulars come week after week and new clientele are guaranteed to return and likely to become regulars, notes Broadsheet. “The character and atmosphere here is hard to replicate. Everything catches the eye; a family may be celebrating a birthday with oysters and champagne, while waiters deftly manoeuvre between tables calling orders (en Français, bien sûr) to the bar.” Where else, asks Gourmet Traveller, do you look for soupe à l'oignon gratinée? Andouillette Parisienne, tripes au riesling, filet de boeuf béarnaise, magret de canard with pommes sarladaise or boeuf Bourguignon? “Yet, among the appropriately predictable dishes that make up the extensive France-Soir carte, you may notice the others that tilt toward modernity: a red tuna tartare, for example, or grilled scampi with lemongrass. And there are myriad bistro classics that have found new favour in the bistro explosion of Australia's eastern seaboard in recent years -- steak tartare, omelette, terrines and rillettes, the beefsteak options, tarte Tatin and even profiteroles.”
Another classy favourite is Il Bacaro, which sits inconspicuously alongside trendy boutiques on a narrow city lane. “It's robustly flavoured food with a high comfort factor and a great affinity with wine, logical given that Il Bàcaro's wine list, a document of quality and breadth, has been one of its drawcards since day one,” says Gourmet Traveller. ”It’s a sexy restaurant for sure, timelessly elegant and as fitting for power-lunching lawyers as it is for late-night relationship kick-starting. So what’s its secret? “It's not about the food – though the Italian food is good. It's not about the wine – even though the restaurant's name celebrates Bacchus, god of grapes, observes Dani Valent in Good Food. “It's that food, wine, ambient interior and, crucially, service, meld to create an atmosphere in which every conversation is important and every joke becomes 15 per cent funnier.”
Matteo’s, “the grande dame of North Fitzroy,” is another such establishment in the little black book of John Lethlean, restaurant critic of The Australian – “nothing if not traditional at first blush … but with a new head chef Kah-wai “Buddha” Lo's Asian focus, Matteo Pignatelli has reinvigorated his 22-year-old fine diner for a new decade.” The broad French-Japanese of years past has been updated with dishes such as General Tso’s fried quail -- “a generous and cheeky take on san choy bao,” says the Herald Sun -- and “a brilliant prawn laksa ravioli are the opening acts for crisp-roasted duck (pictured above) served with duck neck sausage, say, or blushingly pink lamb teamed with miso-spiked eggplant.”