End of an era for Bookplate Cafe at the National Library of Australia

Natasha Rudra
National treasures: Steve Scott and Rachel Romney-Brown at Bookplate in the National Library of Australia.
National treasures: Steve Scott and Rachel Romney-Brown at Bookplate in the National Library of Australia. Photo: Rohan Thomson

Rachel Romney-Brown has spent 14 years at Bookplate, the cafe with the glass-walled terrace looking out over the lake and the magnificent stained glass windows at the National Library of Australia. But ask her about a favourite memory and she talks about Aeroplane jelly.

"This is our masterpiece, really," she says. It was a showpiece created by her head chef Steve Scott to celebrate the opening of the library's Treasures Gallery in 2011. The collection in the Treasures Gallery includes the original text for the Aeroplane jelly song. "So I had this crazy idea," she says. They created a centrepiece with tiers of jelly in bright jewel colours, echoing the stained glass windows at the cafe, placing the jelly pieces onto shards of glass and gleaming metal spoons with little lights underneath to make everything glow. The whole thing was wheeled into the library amid curls of dry ice and a live orchestra playing the aeroplane jelly song. it was dramatic. "And people just fell on it - whole place just smelt of jelly," she says.

Romney-Brown is saying goodbye to dramatic centrepieces, catered events with VIPs from the art world, summer weddings on the Bookplate terrace and little lunches at tables huddled next to the stained glass windows. She's opted not to renew her contract at the National Library and the cafe has gone out to tender. 

Pushing the envelope: Steve Scott and Rachel Romney-Brown
Pushing the envelope: Steve Scott and Rachel Romney-Brown Photo: Rohan Thomson

She was just 30 when she won the contract, after spending five years running a bagel shop in Civic. She took on the library cafe after going into business with an older male restaurateur ("society at the time instantly assumed he was the boss and I was the supervisor"). Romney-Brown named the cafe Bookplate and it was a small operation at first.  "I remember looking at the trickle of people coming in and thinking, 'We'll be broke in three months.'" she says. There was so much empty space in the dining area that she put a grand piano down one end to fill up the area. Scott, a Canberra boy who's worked in Europe and around the world, joined the team after a year and has stayed ever since ("he's probably wanted to strangle me a couple of times"). Romney-Brown built on Bookplate's grand views over the lake from the glass-walled terrace and expanded it as a dining spot in its own right, rather than an afterthought to a national institution.  She opened up the space and got rid of reservations for meals. "We want anyone to be able to come in, if you want a full meal or a coffee. That's been egalitarian and successful. Ladies who lunch come here, mums with babies in prams who've done laps of the lake, people with dogs sit on the terrace, uni students come and study."

So why's she giving it up? Romney-Brown and husband Peter have three kids who've more or less grown up around the library and the cafes.  It was fine, she says, until the children got older and started to feel her absence more and more. "This is a seven-day-a-week business and there are lots of late nights that people don't see," she says. "During the summer we do weddings most weekends and it means that I get home at three, four o'clock in the morning and it means my days are no use to my children. So I need to have a rest." Scott says he'll wait and see what happens at the end of the tender process before making his next move.

Romney-Brown grew up in Mittagong in the Southern Highlands, came to Canberra for university and realised after graduating that she hated office work. She'd worked in hospitality as a student and returned to the trade before buying into a bagel shop in the old City Markets in Civic. She was just 25. Then came Bookplate, and later the smaller coffee kiosk Paperplate downstairs and then Ex Libris. Along the way there have been some memorable dinners. To celebrate an exhibition of Patrick White, Scott pored through the author's meticulous notebooks and cooked three dishes from White's own recipes, including a carrot mousse and a chicken dish with spices. For a show on Burke and Wills he made a ragout with camel meat scooped into baby dampers (because the doomed explorers ended up eating their own camels). "People were just saying, 'Oh this is fantastic, blah blah, what's it made of?' And you'd say, 'Oh it's a camel ragout' and you could just see this look of horror," says Romney-Brown. When the library digitised 50 years' worth of the Australian Women's Weekly, Scott made a hilariously cheesy centrepiece of fruit and veg in a big ring of aspic - which guests started eating without realising it was simply decorative. There have been about 150 weddings, including two historic same-sex weddings during the ACT's first foray into legalising gay marriage. Among them were ACT Deputy Chief Minister Andrew Barrand his partner Anthony Tom who got married on the terrace ("probably the best flowers we've had at a wedding"). "It's been fun," she says.