In the pantheon of Great Australian Side Dishes, one table mate rules above all. Guillaume Brahimi's Paris mash might be the ultimate accompaniment to beef bourguignon, and Neil Perry's mushy peas should always ride shotgun with a Rockpool steak, but nothing hits all the nostalgia-filled pleasure points like Sizzler's cheese toast.
Thick-sliced bread, spread with pecorino and margarine, grilled golden-brown on one side. Simple to cook at home, but impossible to replicate, Sizzler's complimentary starter has been on the menu since the buffet chain arrived in Australia from the US in 1985.
All good things come to an end, however, and last month Sizzler's parent company announced it was closing all its remaining Australian outposts. Shared tongs and pandemics don't mix.
Sizzler, say it ain't so! Granted, like many people, I had forgotten Sizzler was still with us, but eight restaurants are still hanging in there – four in Queensland, three in Western Australia, and one near Campbelltown on the fringe Sydney.
All stores serve their last doorstops of cheese toast on Sunday, but good luck scoring a seat for one last salad bar session. All-you-can-eat enthusiasts have booked every table for Sizzler's final service, although it's beyond speculation why anyone who has been to the restaurant in the past five years would want to dine there again.
I visited Sizzler Sydney to pay my respects last week, and can confirm the cheese toast was deeply savoury and delicious until the end. The majority of the rest of the food: deadset horrible. Anemic pumpkin soup, rubbery seafood, and linguine so overcooked my toothless Aunt Norma would send it back for being too soft. I've had better meals at Melton paceway.
"We used to joke that what was on the sneeze guard was more appealing than the stuff below," says food writer Richard Cornish, who recalls Sizzler's potato skins being so overcooked in the '90s you risked chipping a tooth. No chance of that today, mind. The spud skins are soggy to the point my partner and I wonder if they've been steamed in butcher's paper before a spell in the microwave.
The "signature" bolognese sauce – a favourite of eight-year-old me – tasted spookily close to Latina Fresh, while an aggressively seasoned rump steak wouldn't be out of place at a pokie-fuelled club bistro. A soft-serve machine still pumps streams of OK-ish ice-cream, but it's hard to get excited about dessert after nachos that look like a John Olsen fever dream. The jelly is fine.
A shout out to the floor staff at this juncture, tasked with one of the most challenging jobs in hospitality – fetching salad bar items for die-hard Sizzler customers. Coronavirus rules mean diners can't approach the buffet island of cold fusilli themselves, and must summon a crew member for service.
"More tomato sauce!" "Red onion, please, but whole rings only." "Do you think this is an appropriate amount of marshmallows?" Every staff member handled these requests with professionalism and grace and potential employers should take note. "My god, man. It says here you worked at Sizzler in its final months? I've heard the tales. You've got the job!"
The chain boasted 83 locations nationwide at its height in 1993, and despite soggy potato skins today, Sizzler's salad bar days were a massive influence on our dining culture.
For better or worse it brought a sense of sophistication to fast food, paving the way for casual restaurant brands like those Bavarian schnitzel troughs taking over the suburbs.
"No thongs, dress or fashion shorts only" instructed the old doorway signs. Sizzler was fancy food for a post-recession economy, striking a chord with families after something more upmarket than McDonald's, and menu choices beyond the Black Stump. You could also eat as much your creaseless chinos could fit.
Incredibly, Sizzler taught Australians how to queue at restaurants, something we're still doing at Chin Chin in Sydney and Melbourne every weekend. It trained '80s kids like myself how to interact with waitstaff and politely ask for more bread. For growing taste buds, that buffet was a cornucopia of discovery. Soy-based bacon bits: great! Chilli flakes: ouch.
Goodbye, Sizzler, and thanks for memories. Hooroo to the homestyle chicken soup (how does the kitchen get it so … khaki?) and addio to that bottomless pit of alfredo. So long, American diner booths and bowling club carpet, and godspeed the friendly staff.
And cheese toast – a special farewell to you, my savoury prince. Gone, but not forgotten. Grilled, but never cooked through.
How to make Sizzler cheese toast at home
Combine equal amounts of softened margarine with pecorino cheese and mix to create a paste. Butter and parmesan can be substituted if you're feeling frou-frou. Spread the mixture on one side of thick-sliced supermarket bread. This is not the time for sourdough.
Pan-fry spread-side down on a medium heat for about a minute until the cheese is bubbling and golden brown. Remove from the pan, let the cheese settle and eat. (Best served with pumpkin soup and a Shirley Temple.)