When I was working in Melbourne last month, some of my Melbourne colleagues took me out for lunch at The Rotunda. It’s a cute little octagonal building, with glass all around, right on the beach on the Esplanade in the quaint and quiet suburb of Williamstown in the western suburbs. There’s a Rotunda tuck shop underneath which sells quick snacks and drinks to beach goers in the summer.
It’s the kind of place that you would drive right by unless you were a local and knew the area well. In fact, it’s the kind of place that you wouldn’t even drive by – Williamstown is out of the way for most Melbournians as it’s not near any major arterials. It’s definitely a hidden gem.
It was very quiet the day we went, and we were one of only two groups. Not only was it mid-week but the sky outside was grey and grizzly, with a real chill in the air. The rain was steadily increasing, the wind was picking up, and we were in for a storm that night. These conditions actually gave us the perfect view from our table by the windows – the ocean was rough and the rhythm of the waves were hypnotising.
The menu was very much along the lines of fast Modern Australian food – pizzas, focaccias, a pasta or two, and some grilled steaks and salads. All simple, standard fare, perfect for that casual beach environment.
I chose a vegetarian pizza, which had a crispy yet puffy base, and was absolutely covered with healthy veggies. The roasted eggplants and capsicums that topped the pizza had a beautiful smoky flavour, like they had been roasted in a wood-fired oven. For all I know, the pizza itself had probably been cooked in a wood-fired oven!
The feta cheese as well was an inspired choice, given the absence of spicy or salty meats on the pizza. The salty tanginess of the feta added an extra dimension of flavour that a standard grated cheese simply wouldn’t have had!
I rate The Rotunda a 7 out of 10. The food is decent, middle-of-the-road and dependable. The real drawcard here however, are the amazing views.
One day between running close-of-estate errands on my recent month-long stay in Melbourne, my father took me to have a meal at Food Republik in Box Hill. Situated within the main shopping centre Centro Box Hill, Food Republik is just off the main food court and is essentially a mini food court itself that offers mainly Taiwanese-inspired street-style hawker food.
When you approach Food Republik, the first thing you see is the giant modern lit up sign, pointing the way to wards culinary delight. Like many other restaurants (Chef’s Gallery and Mamak in Sydney are examples), Food Republik has chosen to place their best kitchen staff in the front window so that they create hundreds and hundreds of perfect dumplings under the watchful eyes of the permanent queue of people outside waiting for a table. It’s a real drawcard and plays to the ‘authentic street food’ vibe that they’re aiming for – surely you would see ladies like this on the street in Taiwan, making dumplings in exactly the same way?
As my father and I made our way into the dining area and sit down, a waitress brought us a pad and pen with a menu – you actually write down your order yourself here, marking the number of the dish you’ve chosen, on the pad. They have even provided a space for special requirements – for example, someone could order a vegetarian dish, and specify “no tofu” or “no bean sprouts”. It’s a very diner-friendly system!
The menus are really large, and has been separated into different sections, under different ‘restaurant’ names. There’s “Crystal Jade Xiao Long Bao”, “Taiwan Cafe”, “Chef Tao’s Bento Kitchen”, and many more. This actually works really well, as the owners are able to organise an incredibly diverse menu into categories that best fit – diners too, can flip straight to the section with the food they want to eat.
We started with the pork dumplings in hot and sour noodle soup. The dumplings were huge, with six large dumplings in the bowl serving almost as a meal in itself! The soup was tasty and really hearty though not as ‘hot’ as I tend to prefer. I needed to add a health dash of pepper to ramp up the spice in the soup.
Move over KFC Popcorn Chicken, you’ve been replaced! This was a really great rice box, with a good mix of carb, veggie and protein. While I would personally have preferred more veggies, the popcorn chicken was tasty and ‘zingy’ enough to make me forget about silly things like a balanced meal and healthy eating.
This is a fantastic dessert option for those people like my father who don’t really have a sweet tooth. The peanut snow ice is refreshing, fantastically textured, and subtly flavoured, with the black sesame and crushed peanut on top providing most of the flavouring. It’s a very subtle dessert that doesn’t try too hard to impress, but manages to satiate and satisfy.
Overall, I rate Food Republik an 8 out of 10. The food was tasty, service was efficient, if not all that friendly, and there’s a fantastic lively atmosphere in the joint that stems from the unique idea of serving Taiwanese street food in a mini food court.
In my last two years of high school, I went through a phase where I only watched old films that were made before the 1960s. I had posters of James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn stuck up over my walls. I considered Katharine Hepburn and Grace Kelly my style icons and wanted to date Cary Grant.
As part of that phase, I embraced old rock’n’roll music, drive-in movies and fast food diners with waitresses in pinstriped shirts. The iconic Soda Rock Cafe in South Yarra was my dining establishment of choice. Ten years after my flirtation with retro, the Soda Rock Cafe is still welcoming retro-inspired diners through its doors every day. In my recent month long stay in Melbourne post-family tragedy, I dropped in for a meal with my younger brother, for old times sake.
As soon as you walk into the diner, you’re greeted by a life-size model of the King himself, Elvis Presley. With sweet fifties rock’n’roll tunes cranking in the background, and the service staff dressed in crisp white uniforms, you almost feel like you’ve stepped back in time – perhaps dressed in a poodle skirt with bobby socks!
My brother opted for the chocolate flavoured Coke, and I tried the lime flavoured Coke. The chocolate Coke was surprisingly creamy, though with the characteristic Coke fizz – not unlike a Chocolate Spider! The lime flavoured Coke was super refreshing with a nice level of sweet tartness – not unlike a fizzy lime cordial.
After examining the list of burgers, sandwiches and other mains available, I decided that it was pointless to pretend that I was even vaguely interested in any of the other offerings – I was fated to get the Big Bopper. Bacon? Egg? Grilled Onion? Pickles? They are pretty much my only requirements for the burger from heaven, so it was really the only choice for me!
It was a heavenly burger – the bacon was nearly fried to a crisp which is the only way to eat bacon, and the grilled onion was thickly sliced which is much better than those wimpy thin slices you get with other burgers. The only downside from my point of view was the beetroot that was included – it’s not my favourite vegetable (I say, as crowds of Australians around the country cry out in protest at this display of anti-patriotism).
Unfortunately, the chips weren’t as crispy as I tend to prefer. While the small chips were crispy, the bigger chips could definitely have benefited from a longer relationship with the deep fryer, as they were quite soft in the middle!
My more eminently more responsible younger brother chose the chicken burger, which was marketed on the menu as the choice for more health-conscious diners. I tried a bite of this burger, and found the chicken to be well marinated with a tangy spicy sauce. Unfortunately, it was a bit too over-grilled for my liking and the meat too dry on the inside.
An old-fashioned ice-cream sundae is the first thing that many people think about when it comes to a retro diner like this – can’t you just imagine being perched on a high stool at the bar with the high school football star, sharing a sundae and hoping that he would be your guy, and you would be his best gal? Or is it just me who’s slightly delusional and lives in a fantasy world?
Anyway, sharing a sundae with my younger brother was a far cry from my fantasy, but the dessert itself was more than worthwhile – the hot, sticky, sweet fudge was just heavenly with the super creamy ice-cream. The marshmallows were plentiful, though I could have done with more chopped peanuts overall.
Overall, I rate Soda Rock Cafe a 7 out of 10. It earns its points mainly on the excellence of its funky old-style drinks and desserts, and trendy retro atmosphere – it really takes you back to (what I imagine to be) a simpler time. You can almost feel your cares and worries slip away as you enter the diner!