Most professional chefs like to change their menus regularly, but Melbourne diners are increasingly demanding that some dishes – from humble lobster rolls, to classic Peking duck and chocolate souffle – are always available.
Last week at Grossi Florentino, chef Guy Grossi's flagship restaurant, two-thirds of diners ordered the chocolate souffle, a version of which has been on the menu since the 1960s.
Invariably, it goes something like this: a diner strides into a restaurant, brushes away the menu, and reels off their order, almost by heart. They're going straight for the destination dish, the rock star of the menu. As the 35th anniversary edition of The Age Good Food Guide, out next week, records, Melbourne has many greatest hits, some dating back 40 or 50 years.
At Ezard, they're probably demanding oyster shooters and pork hock with chilli caramel, at Flower Drum it's the Peking Duck, at Stokehouse, the bombe alaska. House-made sausages and strawberry pancake have been on the Vlado's menu for 50 years; Movida's bite-sized anchovy with smoked tomato sorbet has been its most popular dish since 2005.
Chefs drop "it dishes" from a menu at peril to their bottom line.
Since creating his $16 version of the New England lobster roll three years ago, Andrew McConnell estimates he's sold about 80,000. He knew he had a hit when diners would order one, then turn around and order another straight away. "Someone ordered four at one sitting," he recalls.
Across the road at Ezard, pork hock with chilli caramel has been on Teage Ezard's menu since 2003. It's braised in a master stock that is itself 14 years old, Ezard says, "we just top it up with water and aromatics".
At Grossi Florentino, founded in 1928, chocolate souffle has outlasted several changes of owners and chefs. Guy Grossi made it his own when his family bought the restaurant in 1999, adding chocolate sauce and malt ice cream. Restaurant manager Joe Durrant said, "last week we made a shade over 300 chocolate souffles for around 450 diners. That translates as the whites of 450 eggs and definitely a lot of hot air".
Attica's Ben Shewry says to become a hit, a dish has "got to taste really great, it's got to have an emotional tie through the story or ingredients, and publicity can be a factor too".
Last year Shewry dropped one of his signature dishes, the critically-lauded potato cooked in the earth it was grown, a fixture since 2009, saying it had become "a bit of a monkey on my back". Attica's staff say diners still ask for another dropped dish, the Plight of the Bees dessert, which Shewry says became a bit of a celebrity after appearing on MasterChef.
Destination dishes can have a downside, though. When Andrew McConnell's confit apple with ice-cream was named "dish of the year" in the 2008 Good Food Guide, he says he sold few other desserts. But that hasn't soured McConnell on the seven-year old sweet - it's back on the menu at his Fitzroy restaurant, Cutler & Co.
Never off the menu
Grossi Florentino chocolate souffle (1960s)
Guy Grossi inherited the much-loved dish when his family bought Florentino, founded in 1928, in 1999. He added chocolate sauce, uses Valrhona chocolate, and serves it with malt ice-cream. It's still a favourite with diners in the upstairs restaurant. "We get requests for it from downstairs, too," Grossi says. "A lot of people associate the restaurant with the souffle." Of 450 diners who ate in the restaurant last week, 300 ordered the souffle.
Vlado's entire menu (50 years)
From the starter of house-made sausages, to the mixed grill, prime steak and strawberry pancakes, the set menu at the Richmond steakhouse has been a fixture for all of its 50 years. A butcher working in house makes the sausages, and the steak is grilled by chefs who worked alongside the late Vlado Gregurek. The grill master's wife, son and daughter-in-law continue his traditions, right through to the pancakes, the one dessert on offer.
Flower Drum Peking duck (1976, 38 years)
Diners have been known to refuse the menu at Flower Drum, insisting that they have come just for the Peking duck, which is served with fanfare from a tableside cart. Flower Drum manager Jason Lui says the duck, and baked crab shell, are the restaurant's two longest-running and most popular dishes. "In my time I have tried to take them off our banquet menus every now and then, just for a change, but then patrons just ask if they can change it back to those dishes," Lui says.
Ezard oyster shooters (20 years) and master-stock braised pork hock with chilli caramel (17 years)
Teage Ezard developed his oyster shooters - served in a glass topped with sake and mirin - by accident. He was experimenting, popped them in the fridge overnight and found they settled with a beautiful clear liquid on top. Twenty years on he uses cucumber sorbet and yuzu in the mix, and they're only off the menu during oyster spawning season. Ezard says when he once tried to drop the signature dishes from the menu "there was uproar".
MoVida's anchovy with smoked tomato sorbet (2005, nine years)
Camorra's most popular dish can be devoured in just a couple of bites, but that hasn't hurt its celebrity. "It's available at MoVida in Sydney now too," Camorra says of the crisp, slender crouton, topped with an anchovy and dollop of tomato sorbet. "We sell 80 to 150 of them every day." Camorra describes the dish as MoVida's signature, inspired by Basque bar culture. He's even shared the recipe on the restaurant's website.
Bar Lourinha kingfish "pancetta" with lemon oil (2006, eight years)
It seems a simple dish: slices of kingfish with lemon oil. But diners have a habit of falling silent once it lands and forks are lifted. Bar Lourinha staff say it's one of three signature dishes that prove perennially popular. The others are cinnamon-kissed chickpeas with spinach and mushrooms cooked in cream.
Stokehouse bombe Alaska (eight years)
Since its creation, the bombe has never left the Stokehouse menu. Head chef Ollie Gould says it's made as a log, with strawberry sorbet and white chocolate parfait, and covered in warm, soft Italian meringue. The log is sliced and served with strawberry reduction. "I tried to take if off the menu once and there was a bit of uproar from the owners and chefs," Gould says. The dish has moved from the St Kilda Stokehouse to the CBD and Brisbane restaurants. "Even my friends love it," Gould says.
Cumulus Inc's roasted lamb shoulder (2009, five years)
A poll of The Good Food Guide's 60 reviewers saw Cumulus Inc's lamb shoulder - slow roasted and served to share - frequently nominated as one of the city's signature dishes. But alongside it, two other dishes have been fixtures, too - a cracked wheat and freekeh salad with barberries ("I like it because it's a bit healthy," McConnell says) and tuna tartare.
Huxtable's jalapeno and cheddar croquettes (2010, four years)
Chef Daniel Wilson spent some of his formative years in the US, where jalapeno poppers are a popular American bar snack. He brought the habit to Huxtable, renamed them jalapeno and cheddar croquettes, and they sold like hotcakes. "These little guys have been probably the most popular bite at Huxtable ... creamy in texture ... and do really scream for beer. One is never enough," he writes in his cookbook, Huxtabook.
Supernormal New England lobster roll (three years)
Andrew McConnell's take on a New York snack was developed for his Golden Fields restaurant in St Kilda (now Luxembourg). He sold 60,000 of them there, and says he's sold 18,000 more since opening Supernormal. He keeps track by counting the Chinese bakery soft brioche rolls he buys in, pre-sliced, and fills with lemon-napped Kewpie mayo, WA lobster and watercress. McConnell says it's the sweetness of warm bun, against the cool lobster that makes them a hit.
The Age Good Food Guide 2015 will be available for $10 with The Saturday Age on August 30 from participating newsagents. It can also be purchased in selected bookshops and online at theageshop.com.au for $24.99. #goodfoodguide