10 Bourke St Melbourne, VIC 3000
|Features||Licensed, Late night|
|Prices||Cheap (mains under $20)|
|Phone||03 9639 7324|
Tackling something as nostalgic and widely referenced as the diner theme is no mean feat. My first was a doozey. I was 19, on Route 66 with a Texan boyfriend whose heart I had just broken, in a car with a bust CD player listening to a soundtrack of Christian country rock on repeat. We sat in a booth. I ate my first chicken fried steak smothered with thick white gravy and fried Texas toast. The waitress kept us topped up with burnt black coffee and nobody else spoke.
And if America's diners are the stuff of Kerouac legend, Australia has a culture of its own. Countless relationships have been formed at Danny's Burgers, Melbourne's stalwart on St Georges Road, Fitzroy North, where the TV screens soccer, the shakes are sold in lurid lime and the red vinyl stools are always buffed.
But it's into this nostalgic niche that the European Group's new 24-7, meat-centric Butcher's Diner has plunged. It turns out, with solid consideration of the subject matter at hand.
Con Christopoulos's design dons have rarely failed to nail an aesthetic, be it the wood-panelled Brit-ish look of their public bar Kirk's, the classic lines of the European, the City Wine Shop or the light-filled loft, French Saloon. Here, the terrazzo floor is already artfully scuffed around the edges. Metal tables bracket a central orange laminate bar top that swerves a '70s tick through the room.
It's equal parts utilitarian and strangely comforting. There is a register. It's cash only. If you want water you'll fetch it from pitchers down the front – even if you are the only person there and the guy on the register has nothing else to do. If you've experienced the slick and attentive service of the European group's other ventures, it's a jolt to be sent to an ATM and handed a buzzer to wait for your food.
But then the food arrives and, true to form, it is better than anyone wearing lederhosen at 4.30am has any right to expect. Almost unbelievably, the kitchen, operating around the clock, doesn't narrow its focus to burgers in the dead of the night.
A fairly epic menu displayed on a pinboard on the wall simply gets bigger at breakfast with the addition of cinnamon scrolls, and steak and eggs. Here's a place where duck heart yakitori, grilled salmon cutlets and double-cooked Sichuan-spiced duck is available at every single hour of the day.
If there's a better way to defy dawn than by ordering ox tongue yakitori skewers, I haven't found one. The offal – soft-centred, caramelised-crisp and ruffled onto sticks – is a salty, lemon-freshened kick in the pants. See also juicy pork doused in oil and parsley, delivered with half a baguette for a makeshift sandwich.
And if there's a more outrageously luxurious breakfast sandwich than the blood pudding and devilled egg in brioche, I'm afraid to meet it. It takes me two sessions to get through the spiced, morcilla-like slab of protein and mashed, curried egg with just the right amount of pickle and crisp iceberg. But with zero regrets.
As expected, there's some solid hand-held artery walloping to be had. Their cheeseburger is a classic beast formed on half-wagyu patties starring pickles that are one of the only items not made in the shop. Chips, hand-cut, are double fried and hold crispness from first to last. The dimmie? It's a stodgy, sticky steamed iteration that tastes of 1am.
But there's surprising freshness, too. Potato salad sees boiled russets gently crushed and doused in olive oil, parsley and red onion. Nearly everything cops a big squeeze of lemon. There's devil in the detail, too.
The butcher part of this operation, Simon Poole, can be seen behind the glass cabinets of Robins Island wagyu, working the charcuterie and mixing blood pudding.
An intense once-weekly special of crisp duck is dry-spiced with Sichuan, brined and marinated in shaoxing wine, double-dredged in tapioca flour and fried to a shatter-crisp finish to eat with jammy chilli sauce and sweet pickles.
Is this "dinner out"? It can be, though it's probably better for established mates. Claiming the nook in the arched entrance is the only freedom from bright lights and occasionally big tunes.
The drinks list, starring craft tinnies from Pennsylvania to the Mornington Peninsula and a handful of local wines and French bubbles only available by the half bottle, better sings the song of the solo diner.
Truth told, it's sitting here alone with properly bad filter coffee, all bitterness and poetic grit (I mean that as a compliment – no diner has yet nailed this aspect of dinerism), you can feel the potential for Butcher's Diner to work its way into the city's fabric. I've eaten skewers waiting for a train. I've watched a bad date over churros. I've had a worse one, with chips. I've picked my stool. I've thanked the dining gods (and the council) for a new oasis in the night, a beacon for the hungry and dispossessed.
Cost: Daily specials $18-$26; sandwiches and burgers $10-$18.
Vegetarian: Rolls, breakfasts and dinner options including falafel plates.
Drinks: Wines by the half bottle, craft tinnies (alcohol until midnight), filter coffee.
Pro Tip: Go solo, go late and get a snackshot of your city.
Go-to Dish: The blood sausage and devilled egg breakfast sandwich ($10).