Icon review: the Spaghetti Tree

Memorabilia crams the walls of Spaghetti Tree.
Memorabilia crams the walls of Spaghetti Tree. Photo: Joe Armao

59 Bourke St Melbourne, VIC 3000

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Opening hours Lunch Mon-Sat; dinner daily.
Features Licensed, Family friendly, Gluten-free options, Accepts bookings, Pre-post-theatre
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Payments eftpos, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 03 9650 3174

It's like clockwork every winter. Humpback whales head for the balmy Pacific and Melbourne restaurateurs, Italian or not, turn their hand to comforting carbs. In the past month alone, Scott Pickett has opened Lupo, the Congress team has dropped cafe Lagotto, and the Valmorbida family have loosed Agostino wine bar upon us.

What a good time, then, to consider a landmark such as Spaghetti Tree, a 300-capacity Bourke Street stayer that's weathered 39 winters, was founded by a German restaurateur before being taken over by Vicki Malaspina and son David in 1998 and is named for possibly the greatest April Fool's prank ever pulled by a reputable news source.

In 1957 the BBC's Panorama ran a story on what a good year it had been for the spaghetti tree crops, thanks to a warm winter, and eradication of the spaghetti weevil. Lent authority by the voiceover of venerable broadcaster Richard Dimbleby, the corporation spent £100 faking a spaghetti harvest on the supposed Swiss-Italian border. Brits, still new to the exotic delicacy, called the Beeb in their hundreds, some demanding to know how to cultivate their own trees.

Spaghetti marinara is a signature.
Spaghetti marinara is a signature. Photo: Joe Armao

Cut to 1980, when the Italian restaurant opened on the upper reaches of Bourke Street, replete with its own ornamental spaghetti tree. Allegedly children kept plucking the spaghetti so they ditched it.

This is a theatre restaurant in ways that go beyond their dedication to getting you out for curtains (your drinks order is taken along with your show time). Come on Friday and Saturday nights and a one-man band will serenade you with a squeezebox as you eat your creamy garlic prawns.

If you ask people for their memories of Spaghetti Tree, you get the full spectrum. Fantastic first dates. Horrific work stories from both sides of the equation – diners who endured team-building work lunches and the ex-waiters who endured serving them. Most Melburnians admit fascination, but haven't been.

Pan-fried veal saltimbocca.
Pan-fried veal saltimbocca. Photo: Joe Armao

Those who have, and who love it, live for that old restaurant smell; for its cocktail specials of mojitos in winter and its dazzling plumage of lewd tasselled lights. Those fans include Julia Zemiro, who has dubbed its look "saloon brothel", and the first lady of the ABC, Leigh Sales.

Don't underestimate that bouquet. You don't notice until you enter, but modern restaurants don't have it. Places like the Spaghetti Tree are soaked to their core with the unmistakeable eau de restaurant service. It's that bitter baseline of the espresso machine, the high top note of chocolate from the dessert display, the worn-in wine spills and the powerful undertow of powdered parmesan cheese. That right there is bottled history.

It's into this vision that the laminated menus take focus. I've heard people froth with outrage at the brevity and "cheapness" of the wine list. Who conversely baulk at the $30 spaghetti marinara and mock the Moroccan salad and chicken satay for ruining the purity of the entree list. Do not take these people. Find your Leigh Sales and shout them a banana split.

The ornamental spaghetti tree is no more.
The ornamental spaghetti tree is no more. Photo: Joe Armao

Truly. That dessert is a prime specimen of fruit and nuts and whipped cream. Like the pastas, which constitute about half the menu, and dishes that hail from a time when signatures had human names (chicken alberto sees your breast smothered in a creamy mustard sauce), the banana split does what it says on the menu.

There's no tipping to the trends of cacio e pepe here. This is carbonara with a touch of cream, built over strands of pasta seca. Still, on last visit I can vouch that its tomatoey spaghetti marinara was gigantic, hot and fresh; those creamy garlic prawns were a pure nostalgia hit and the banana split a ridiculous nutty, creamy confection.

If you're expecting something else, like a specifically Roman menu or a biodynamic wine list, there are literally hundreds of Italian restaurant at your service.

The banana split is a ridiculous nutty, creamy confection.
The banana split is a ridiculous nutty, creamy confection. Photo: Joe Armaof

But how many of them have busy carpets and a vintage phone booth? How many with a dancefloor and memories from theatre shows crammed on every inch of wall? Take it, or leave the rest of us here with our penne alfredo, our jar of parmesan, and no adult supervision.

Est. 1980

Signature dishes: Garlic prawns, gnocchi, banana split, spaghetti marinara, spaghetti bolognese.

Famous diners: They never kiss and tell but Leigh Sales does.