183 St Georges Road Fitzroy North, Victoria 3068
|Opening hours||Tue-Sun 6pm-10pm|
|Features||Vegetarian friendly, Gluten-free options|
|Prices||Cheap (mains under $20)|
|Phone||03 9482 4240|
As far as restaurant awards go, an Order of Australia is right up there. But then Moroccan Soup Bar has always been both deliciously good and good with a capital G.
Maybe you only know it as the colourful Moroccan place on St Georges Road with the sweet mint tea, the heaving platters of mezze and the chickpea bake that could give you a coronary as fast as eating any beast. You know, that place where the queues used to be killer before they opened a takeaway branch and where they always required BYO containers – long before ABC's War on Waste was broadcast. It's all those things, but it's why it rolls like this that's the thing.
Before owner Hana Assafiri opened the Moroccan Soup Bar in 1998, she worked in the women's domestic violence services sector (she has recently shared her own powerful #MeToo story, from her youth). At the time, a new government frustrated her ability to effectively assist women. Assafiri threw everything into creating a restaurant (key fact here: it was always a business) that would be a community hub, would serve affordable, sustainable food, and employ women who needed, not charity, but a job and a return to empowerment from cooking – something they felt good at that often becomes a source of oppression in a domestic setting.
Moroccan Soup Bar went against the grain in a lot of ways. It was and still is booze-free, menu-free (everything is spoken), bookings-free (they had the biggest queues around aside from nightclubs), all vegetarian and forced interaction through communal tables. With so few funds, Assafiri bought everything – the golden lanterns, tagines, glassware – from op shops and even made the paint from scratch with her father.
The system worked. Little has altered in 21 years. Dinner still begins with glass thimbles of sweet tea, or biting fresh lemonade bristling with mint in summer. The banquet is still the go-to. Back then it cost $15. It's still a crazy $28 for more than you can handle, made the most labour-intensive way, every day, to ensure maximum kitchen employment.
It's a rainbow of dolmades, beetroot and walnut dip, sometimes nutty cous cous wrapped in eggplant. There's the squeaky, sparkly haloumi salad, all bright citrus, herbs and onion. Preserved lemon, pickles and flavours of cinnamon and saffron spike endless combinations of pulses and grains and seasonal vegetables wrought into practiced stews, salads, soups and tagines. It all brackets the chickpea bake – layers of crisp pita bread, chickpeas, silky garlic labna and almonds caramelised in a sea of butter.
Cheap? Yes. Charity? Still no. Assafiri could charge more, but caps profit to prove that social justice and sustainability can be part of a successful business model. And the community, whom she credits with this year's Order of Australia medal, have made it possible.
Every month there are "Speed Date a Muslim" sessions, opening the doorway to taboo questions. At her nearby takeaway, Moroccan Soup Bar Two Go, a library has been built in an upstairs apartment where every book, spanning cooking to politics, is written by women, celebrating women who have changed history yet whose names you may never have heard.
Come for how good it tastes, stay for how good it is.
Signature dishes The chickpea bake, haloumi salad, the banquet with sweets and tea.
Famous diners Coming up: incredible 104-year-old dancer and choreographer Eileen Kramer will launch the reading room on March 10. Check moroccansoupbar.com.au for updates.