13/20

Supper Inn

15 Celestial Avenue, Melbourne, VIC

All Details
Barbecued suckling pig is the hero dish at Supper Inn.
Barbecued suckling pig is the hero dish at Supper Inn. Photo: Eddie Jim

Larissa Dubecki

IF THESE WALLS COULD TALK, THE secrets they'd be able to spill about the night owls and club-hoppers, the chefs and waiters clocking off after another late shift, assuaging the hour with congee and Tsingtao. They could get an agent, sell the movie rights, retire happy.

The walls at Supper Inn do tell a story, in a way. Graffiti is scrawled on the stairwell, an echo of people who once bided their time on the shabby steps with black texta in hand. The downstairs window is blanketed in stickers straddling the Good Food Guide/Cheap Eats divide - no small beer being both affordable and acclaimed. Two generations of airconditioning units are punched into the wall, the superseded ones a memento of timber veneer's heyday. And ''no smoking'' signs stuck around the dining room pass for decoration, a memory of the apocalypse when we butted out in restaurants (and I do remember puffing a between-course ciggie on at least one visit - but I was young, and stupid, and smoking will kill you, kids).

Dining at Supper Inn is a no-frills experience.
Dining at Supper Inn is a no-frills experience. Photo: Eddie Jim

Funny place, Supper Inn. One visit we were forced to move table three times, once between each course, when the restaurant started to fill and diners turned into a giant game of Tetris. Something to do if you can't smoke, I guess.

It's ironic such a no-frills experience is found on Celestial Avenue. Exalted address, but it's more a laneway, with a dumpster down the end and the sternly utilitarian, two-storey white-brick Supper Inn sticking out like a dare.

It's a love-hate proposition. Like anything with the attainment of great age (Supper Inn is 30-plus; a lady need reveal no more), normal rules don't apply. Service is brusque, but it becomes a celebrated part of the mise-en-scene. The dingy room has all the charm of a juvenile remand centre, yet it's packed each night. Opening until 2.30am every day also gives it a northward nudge in the cool stakes.

The menu is as old as religion. The specials card - its laminate surface might tell you these specials are not so special, after all - is where you'll find the real action. And that it remains such a simple comfort to eat here says plenty about the consistency of the Cantonese food. You might already know the standard Supper Inn playlist. It's a classic. The waitress (a smiler - they're not all stern and scary) could have recited the order verbatim.

You kick off with congee, the smooth rice porridge punctuated with soft pieces of white-fleshed chicken that must have been marinated in a bunch of good things. An undertow of ginger throws its weight behind the ''congee as penicillin'' argument.

Then steamed oysters - Pacifics with severe gigantism - on a broad plate swimming in a lake of stock, soy and ginger, with spring onions and pepper and that distinctive, slippery note of sesame oil. Slurp at will.

The sizzling quail is the only ''meh'' moment. A bit more sizzling would be good. We're only a few steps from the kitchen, after all. The familiar garlic-ginger-soy notes creep in with the steamed flounder, its buttery flesh making us wonder why it isn't more fashionable. The whole fish is $18.50 - better than a Boxing Day bargain.

XO pippies are meaty little numbers in a glossy, stocky and intense sauce with more than a hint of fried shrimp. They're memorable with a throat-tickling heat. Kick on with a plate of the bbq suckling pig: skin like toffee, meat big-flavoured and juicy-sweet. Finish at the eggplant and pork hot pot, a humble Canto benchmark from here to Kowloon. It's one of those dishes every Chinese person's mother makes best in the world, but not having a Chinese mother this version will do fine: garlicky, oil-soaked eggplant, minced pork and chewy nublets of salted fish hiding in the gloopy depths. It's so comforting you might want to curl up under the table and nap.

It's easy to be cynical about the term ''institution''. Too often it seems to mean getting away with things. I get the feeling that if the Queen were to visit, she'd be forced to wait on the stairs with everyone else. Supper Inn will be the same today and tomorrow as it was 30 years ago. You've got to like that.

THE LOW-DOWN
The best bit The stairwell waiting ritual piques the appetite
The worst bit The room - a complete liability
Go-to dish The suckling pig
Wine list Limited; big names, low cost
We drank Tsingtao, $6.50
Service Stretched; alternately brusque and engaging
Noise Only oppressive at peak times

How we score
Of 20 points, 10 are awarded for food, five for service, three for ambience, two for wow factor.

12 Reasonable 13 Good if not great 14 Solid and enjoyable 15 Very good 16 Capable of greatness 17 Special 18 Exceptional 19 Extraordinary 20 Perfection

Restaurants are reviewed again for The Age Good Food Guide and scores may vary.

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15 Celestial Avenue, Melbourne, VIC

  • 03 9663 4759
  • Cuisine - Chinese
  • Prices - Typical entree, $5.50; main, $17.50; dessert, $5.50
  • Features - Licensed, BYO
  • Chef(s) - Tony Lu
  • Owners - John Lau and Steve Lau
  • Cards accepted - AMEX, Mastercard, Visa, Diners Club
  • Opening Hours - Daily, 5.30pm-2.30am
  • Author - Larissa Dubecki
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