Immigrants open food world

Rob Broadfield Food Editor
WA's culinary godfather Harry Ferrante.

In the 1960s, three events lit the fuse for the changes that exploded 50 years later into the frenetic food culture of today.

Australia's stifling liquor laws were loosened slightly - first in 1965 in Victoria, with other States following suit - to allow for a new breed of restaurant, the BYO.

Overnight, small restaurants set up in the inner-urban neighbourhoods of our capital cities serving sophisticated, well-travelled Australians coq au vin, saltimbocca and oysters kilpatrick. Heady stuff.

In 1966, two Australian food magazines, Epicurean and Gourmet Food, debuted.

Food writers and restaurant critics began to emerge.

The obsessive levels of discussion about food, restaurants and cooking in Australia today would have been considered aberrant in the 1960s, but even then our 21st-century food obsessions were flowering, albeit on the back of sauce-drenched, overcooked dishes such as chicken a la king, filet mignon and lobster mornay.

The modern Australian food media was born in '66 and Australia's culinary conversation had begun.

Thirdly, the Snowy Mountains Scheme - Australia's biggest infrastructure project - precipitated a massive influx of mostly Greek and Italian immigrants to the Australian Alps to build the project's dams, pipelines and hydro generators.

Over time, many of them settled in Melbourne and Australia's most conservative city became our most cosmopolitan, with the best restaurants, best food importers and best chefs.

It took nearly 40 years but the "Melbourne effect" filtered into Sydney and Perth in the 1990s and changed everything.

Before the 60s, nothing much had changed since the WA colony was founded.

Meat and three veg reigned supreme. Chicken was a luxury. Mutton and beef were the proteins du jour.

In posh restaurants - such as they were -- it was French or an anglicised version of it.

In pubs, a well-done T-bone with tinned beans and mash was the height of Saturday night dining. No one ate meat less than well done.

In Northbridge, the Italians were serving pasta dishes made on the cheap and hoovered up by locals because, for those daring enough to eat such continental delights, it was exotic and the very height of sophistication.

When WA's culinary godfather Harry Ferrante opened the Four Seasons restaurant in 1964 in a former Hay Street coffee shop, Italian food was the preferred choice for WA's well-heeled diners.

"Most of the airlines were located in St Georges Terrace, just behind me, so we had lots of glamorous people from that world," Mr Ferrante said. "We (also) had doctors, lots of solicitors, more the educated Australians. They were demanding, too. They understood Italian food well.

"There were very few restaurants when I arrived (from Abruzzi in 1960) in Perth. Most of them were in Northbridge and most were influenced by Italy," the retired 73-year-old restaurateur recalled.

Mr Ferrante's restaurants are a rollcall of some of the most successful dining rooms from the 60s to the 90s: The Four Seasons, Alberto's, Romano's, Mama Maria's, Cicero's, Harry's Bar & Grill, Simon's Seafood Restaurant, Harry's Seafood Bar & Garden Restaurant, the list goes on. His impact on WA dining has been profound.

Dawn Davies' celebrated restaurant, the Oyster Beds at East Fremantle, became the fashionable haunt for the business and social elite of the day.

Mrs Davies took over the restaurant in December 1966 and turned what was then just an oyster shack - it flooded every time there was a king tide - into the hottest ticket in town.

Her secret? Scantily clad waitresses (and waiters who wore striped tights and pre-Seinfeld puffy shirts unbuttoned to the waist), simple seafood and a never-ending river of wine.

"Things were simpler back then," she said. "We had a lot of fun. I organised a guy to ride a horse into the restaurant for a Melbourne Cup party one year. We were always thinking up stunts and pranks back then."

Mrs Davies, now a sprightly 77-year-old, says WA diners were conservative in the 60s and 70s.

"I wanted to put squid and whitebait on the menu and my chef at the time told me no one would eat it because it was just bait," she recalled. "The big hits were crayfish, dhufish, lobster mornay, oysters, fish with a lemon butter sauce - nothing complicated."

While the Oyster Beds was attracting the well-heeled party crowd and local businessmen and the Northbridge Italians were selling scaloppine and Chianti to the in-crowd, in the CBD most of the dining was done in big hotels.