How Melbourne's restaurants defined a 57-year-old friendship

Nominated for the best new restaurant award, Di Stasio Citta in Melbourne could be next on the pair's list.
Nominated for the best new restaurant award, Di Stasio Citta in Melbourne could be next on the pair's list. Photo: Luis Enrique Ascui

They met on the first day of school. Lynley Walters remembers running home and telling her mother she had a new best friend who was "titchy".

She and Cathy Danaher, both now 62, have been inseparable ever since.

Cathy Danaher and Lynley Walters at Rob's Carousel 1973.
Cathy Danaher and Lynley Walters at Rob's Carousel 1973. Photo: Supplied

And with their birthdays just four days apart, they have religiously marked the occasion together in Melbourne's best restaurants for over 45 years.

The dinners began when they were just 16, when, according to Lynley, "families marked birthdays by going to a movie, and picking up Chinese in a casserole dish to take home."

They wanted to experience something special, fine dining, something their parents never did.

Danaher flew to Adelaide in 2014 to dine at Press to keep their tradition going.
Danaher flew to Adelaide in 2014 to dine at Press to keep their tradition going. Photo: Supplied

That first year, Cathy remembers that Lynley wore a silver lurex top. "I wore vivid blue and a black skirt." They booked window seats at Rob's Carousel on Albert Park Lake. It was one of Australia's first revolving restaurants, giving them flashes of the lake and city lights. "We thought we were so worldly," Cathy says.

Through their marriages and careers, work trips and children, the friends have kept their May 14 date ever since.

The ritual is always the same. They begin with a glass of "expensive champagne". They reflect on the year. When there is a degustation they take it. If not, they let the restaurant decide.

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In the early years, Cathy says they would ask for recommendations and argue. Then, 40 years ago, "the Good Food Guide came along."

Cathy says they "initially picked a restaurant with the most number of hats." As such, the dinners were largely formal.

Lynley remembers the incredible theatre and snapping of napkins at grand institution, Fanny's. The integrity of Stephanie's and Tansy's. One time, ordering duck and watching (in horror) as the bones were placed into a press to extract a liquor. "That was a bit much."

Walters and Danaher at Tipo 00 in 2016.
Walters and Danaher at Tipo 00 in 2016. Photo: Cathy Danaher

In the last decade, the pair have changed tack. When the 'best new restaurant' category was introduced to the Good Food Guide, apparently it was a no-brainer. As veterans, Lynley explains they have usually tried most of the top restaurants available, so choosing the best new is always "a venture into the unknown".

The shift has meant that over the last decade, the friends have been able to track the changing shape of dining. Nominees for best new restaurants capture the spirit of where the industry is at, and where it's going.

So in 2012 they rode the crest of the smart-casual contemporary Asian wave at Andrew McConnell's Golden Fields (Chin Chin was also nominated that year). They dove underground at Simon Denton's Izakaya Den and loved the place, hated the new no-bookings phenomenon that had gripped the city meaning they had to "queue with all the teenagers."

The pair always start with 'expensive champagne'.
The pair always start with 'expensive champagne'. Photo: Supplied

Far nicer, they found, was that ultimate middle ground provided by the bistronomy boom of 2014, when Scott Pickett and then business partner Joe Grbac gave us Saint Crispin. And the year of singularly focused restaurants, a year that gave us sushi palace Minamishima, but where pasta bar Tipo 00 took the gong.

So. Who gets to sing happy birthday to the duo in 2020? Restaurants did it tough this year, but that has actually resulted in venues rising to a challenge with guns blazing.

Newcomers of 2019 fought back against tight margins and home delivery apps, by giving diners a reason to put on their glad rags and go out. Joy and Arc dining in Queensland offer exquisite food and extremely focused attention, especially at 10-seater Joy.

Entertainment is also top of mind, and nowhere is that better seen than Melbourne's Di Stasio Citta, where engine revving slashes of red and contemporary video artworks get the blood up. As veteran operators, Rinaldo Di Stasio and Mallory Wall know as well as veteran diners, that old is gold, but there's always something new, something different to celebrate next.

The finalists for New Restaurant Of The Year areā€¦

The most exciting opening in the past 12 months, this restaurant sets the eating agenda and starts conversations. Represents everything that's fresh, hot and interesting about dining.

Alberto's Lounge

Think of this new Italian restaurant on the old Berta site as the kissing cousin of inner city French restaurant Hubert. Expect an eclectic and broad reaching wine list to go with a menu that's as unapologetic as it is delicious.

17-19 Alberta Street, Surry Hills, albertoslounge.com

ARC Dining

Brisbane-born young gun Alanna Sapwell moved back to the sunshine state from Sydney's Saint Peter in 2019 to take on this light, airy riverside pavilion and adjacent wine bar, and she's nailing it with relaxed, confident small dishes that display great clarity of flavour.

Howard Smith Wharves, 5 Boundary Street, Brisbane, arcdining.com.au

Di Stasio Citta

The sequel to Ronnie Di Stasio's spaghetti-slinging, barolo-pouring St Kilda landmark has landed, and true to the nature of its art-loving provocateur owner, it's going to push buttons you didn't know you had.

45 Spring Street, Melbourne, distasio.com.au/citta

Joy

Having cooked with heavyweights (Urbane, Sepia, Automata), Tim and Sarah Scott decided to do their own thing. And we mean everything: they pour drinks, clear plates and cook and serve five-and-eight course Japanese-influenced menus, before presenting an entirely reasonable bill at their 10 seat restaurant.

"Bakery Lane", shop 7, 694 Ann Street, Fortitude Valley, joyrestaurant.com.au

Pilot

Co-owners Dash Rumble and Ross McQuinn guide their customers with easy wit and a tight drinks list. A bottle of Beaujolais gives wings to the signature roast chook - crisp of skin, stuffed with mushrooms and served with steamed bread for the making of outstanding sandwiches.

1 Wakefield Gardens, Ainslie, pilotrestaurant.com

The Good Food Guide's third annual national edition, with hats awarded across Australia, will be launched on Monday, September 30 with our presenting partners Vittoria Coffee and Citi. The Good Food Guide 2020 will be on sale from October 1 in newsagencies and bookstores, and is also available to pre-order at thestore.com.au/gfg20, $29.99 with free shipping.