Having failed quite massively in my successive endeavours as an administrator, an art dealer, billionaire playboy and, apparently, a regular bloggist, I have on a whim decided to embark upon a stellar career as a gourmand - or at least until the furies visit the spectacular failure that is my birthright upon my head once more. But until that day or, barring that, the day in which my heaving, sweaty mass of pale flesh, distended beyond all measure by steady a diet of battered baby seal brains and sautéed panda sphincters, exercised only by the stately waddle from restaurant to restaurant and the occasional panicked search for the small children drawn into my gravitational field and lost amidst the quivering pallid dough of my fat rolls, can no longer be catered for by arteries caked in seven inches of cholesterol and, with a final vainglorious belch from deep within the pulsating vastness of my gut, crashes messily to the pavement with an indelicate splut… until that day I shall be pleased to report on Melbourne’s finest eateries. Although, yellow dog that I am, I shall be even more pleased to tell tales out of school about some of the city’s more bizarre food holes – and will do just that in a moment.
Not that I intend to dish the dirt on restaurants that are merely bad, though heaven and the health inspectors know there’s enough of them in Melbourne to keep stomach pump manufacturers gainfully employed for decades to come. Rather, consider this your Michelin guide to dining experiences that are entertaining through no fault of the food - places undergone rather than enjoyed.
There’s an old and hackneyed joke about insolent waiting staff evincing a restaurant’s high credentials and exclusivity: they don’t need your money, and can afford to treat you any old how. Camy Shanghai Dumpling and Noodle House in Tattersalls Lane puts the lie to the notion that the right to be rude to one’s customers is bought with quality, reputation and opulence, but demonstrates the old saw's accuracy in as much as that fantastically awful service, as opposed to merely poor, really does improve your meal. If you are lucky, one of the staff will notice you within five minutes of pushing through the grime smeared doorway, and with withering scorn will wave somewhere towards the back of a room decorated charmingly with chipped plywood and linoleum, with sneered instructions to “sit over there... somewhere”. If you'd like a drink, you'll need to fetch your own rather damp plastic cup from a shelf near the kitchen - although if you haven't brought your own, you'll have to make do with the single communal water jug. In time, and with luck, a menu will be hurled at you by a passing waiter; in much the same manner, your food, if they deign to bring it to you, will be flung rather than placed on your trestle table. Any further request for food, extra crockery, a bill, etc, will be diligently ignored. If a perversely contemptuous ambience ain't your thang, be consoled: the lack of quality is more than compensated for by surfeit in quantity, and for about five dollars you'll receive more dumplings than you can or should eat, and they're pretty frikkin' edible too. Just don't peer into the kitchen. You'll regret it.
If you happen to live in the eastern suburbs, as all the best bogans do, and require a pleasingly filling and relatively inexpensive meal eaten in absolute silence, why not try the C. Pot House in Station Street, Box Hill? The ‘C’ thankfully does not stand for ‘chamber’, but given this was the conclusion I jumped to, and therefore the natural one, it might explain why the place tends to be empty bar the staff, who look vaguely surprised when you walk in. The ‘C’ in fact refers to the claypots that are the speciality here (why this could not be made clear on their signage is a mystery): tasty peasant food served in a clean but thoroughly unremarkable setting, which might have passed without comment were it not for two items on the menu which make the C. Pot worthy of note here – ‘Funny Taste Peanuts’ and ‘Funny Taste Chicken’. I kid you not, these are actual dishes, and perfectly named. The peanuts, an entrée I unreservedly recommend, taste odd but delicious; the chicken…the chicken forces you to re-evaluate your understanding of the word ‘funny’. Possibly the joke is on you for ordering. The bird in question is boiled and served cold on a bed of clammy, gelatinous glass noodles with a viscous sauce derived either from nuts or grout, I’m not sure which, and is not so much eaten as experienced. If you’d like to know what it’s like to vomit in reverse, I can’t endorse this dish highly enough.
Last and most impressive is Il Gusto in Lygon street, the closest I’ve been to a theatre restaurant without actually being in one. As is common on the Via Lygon, the proprietor lurks by the door to spruik at you annoyingly as you pass; the difference here is not just the impressive wen on his head which he will use to distract you, but the fact that he will actually demonstrate the quality of his fare by walking over to some of the street-side tables and asking the other, deeply mystified, customers to give you their testimonials. Once inside and cringing at the cheesily clichéd ‘Italian’ décor, he will begin to sing to you. Loudly. And if he stops, his waiters will encourage him to start again. And while I have heard worse renditions of Anthony Calleja’s version of The Prayer, largely from Anthony Calleja, the three tenors are unlikely to feel threatened by your host’s upstart talent. Mind you, he doesn’t appear to know any song the whole way through, and will often launch into a different one mid-chorus. Confused and embarrassed, swearing that next time it’s McDonalds or nothing, you will likely plough through your pleasant though unexceptional meal as quickly as possible, hoping your table will avoid another blitzkrieg serenading. But the best, and most confusing, is yet to come – for while some restaurants compliment their guests with after-dinner mints, Il Gusto goes one better: when your meal is done, a saucer of healthy, nutritious trail mix is placed before you, topped with two Fruit Tingles. No doubt about it, Il Gusto is special; special like your cousin Ronny, who went into the asylum after the thing with the ferret and the jar of Vaseline - you visit him every so often out of pity, but always come away confused and a little terrified. The only difference is you’ll emerge with the delicious effervescence of sherbety Fruit Tingle on your tastebuds, which haunts the mouth for significantly less time than the murdered pop arias haunt the sensibilities.