Romans Original review

Meatball sub served in a Vietnamese bread roll.
Meatball sub served in a Vietnamese bread roll. Photo: Joe Armao

50 Leeds St Footscray, VIC 3011

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Opening hours Sun-Wed 7am-3pm; Thu-Sat 7am-11pm
Features Licensed, Bar
Prices Cheap (mains under $20)
Payments eftpos, Visa, Mastercard

Sometimes a building tells you what it wants to be. When hospitality journeyman Leigh McKenny saw an old deli come up for lease near Footscray station he listened to the space and let it share an idea for a neighbourhood hangout. The Leeds Street shop came up with Romans Original, a nostalgic cafe that morphs into a bar. Coffee becomes wine and broccoli-egg sandwiches become meatball subs just as surely as the sun dips to reveal the stars.

McKenny is a sole owner and this is his first business. Two months in, he's loving the freedom and agog at the slog. What's particularly satisfying is providing something that Footscray lacked – it's needs-based hospitality in a way that opening a cafe in Fitzroy or indeed a pho joint in Footscray simply isn't. Low-fi shabbiness, cool tunes on vinyl, under-the-radar wine and retro comfort food are definitely a welcome addition to 3011.

The menu is a simple array of stuff McKenny likes to eat, mostly hot sandwiches now but with more plated dishes planned over coming months. I'll be surprised if his regulars let him take the eggplant sub off the roster. A traditional eggplant parmigiana – fried slices layered up with tomato passata, basil and Grana Padano cheese – is baked, portioned and stuffed in a roll from Nobel Bakery (possibly Melbourne's oldest Vietnamese bakery) around the corner. It's sloppy and satisfying.

Cafe by day, wine bar by (some) nights: Romans Original in Footscray.
Cafe by day, wine bar by (some) nights: Romans Original in Footscray. Photo: Joe Armao

That same Vietnamese roll holds the meatballs – or tries to, anyway. They're formed from a 60/40 short rib and chuck steak grind which has bags of flavour and texture, amped up with onion and roasted garlic. The balls are deep-fried then loved up with passata.

The rib/chuck formula is also called into service for the cheeseburger, an homage to the golden arches but with such a nice patty that fast-food shame doesn't get a look in. In a town where even craft burgers can be all about towering Instagrammability, this squat sandwich is unprepossessingly lovable.

Vegetable sides include a bowl of boiled potato that's all crumbling Dutch creams, mayo, sour cream, egg and chives. If there was a recipe it would be called something like "Aunt Jan's Potato Salad". I love it.

The lovably squat cheeseburger.
The lovably squat cheeseburger. Photo: Joe Armao

A plate of dressed greens is more continental in inspiration. Green beans, butter beans and snow peas are blanched, chilled and scattered with salty, dry ricotta salata.

The cake cabinet always includes brownies made with Brunswick's excellent Ratio chocolate and a Basque-style mascarpone cheesecake baked hard so the exterior is burnt 'til it's perfectly bitter.

As time goes on, McKenny will expand breakfast with kedgeree (smoked fish and curried rice), Welsh rarebit (toasted cheese) and omelette. Dinner will broaden out with tinned goods, croquettes and raw dishes, while still playing to the boutique nature of the premises.

Basque-style baked cheesecake.
Basque-style baked cheesecake. Photo: Joe Armao

Romans is small so it's probably not the right venue to tumble in with six mates for a feast. There are just 20 seats and the kitchen is super tight – that the dishwasher opens into the oven gives you a sense of the Tetris at play. It's more a place for coffee on the way to work, a sandwich after the market and snacks plus wine and chat at the end of the day.

Whenever you come, know that everything is dealt up with easygoing cheer, a complete lack of pretension and a listening ear for Leeds Street.

Rating: Three and a haf stars (out of five)