20 Meyers Pl Melbourne, VIC 3000
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9650 1508|
Institutions don't get more iconic than the Waiters Restaurant.
Most restaurant twitchers know the big anecdote. Back in 1978 one Amos Rodney Atkinson, a big fan of Chopper Read, went on a rampage involving a high-speed car chase that culminated in an all-night siege at the restaurant. At 1.15am he busted in with shotguns blazing demanding Chopper's release from Pentridge prison or lives would be lost.
Thankfully, this was an era when Melbourne's naughtiest criminals still listened to their mums. Mother Atkinson was summoned and ended the siege by giving Amos a right what for – while dressed in her pyjamas.
It's a good story. Good enough that the yellowing news clippings still hang in pride of place next to the door. But that's a drop in the ocean in this tale.
Known now as the Waiters Restaurant, it started life in 1947 as the Italian Waiters Club, a post-work clubhouse where the large contingent of Italian, Greek and Spanish waiters could come and play cards. Opened during the era of the six o'clock swill, when you couldn't get a drink in Melbourne after 6pm, the waiters, according to current (and second-generation) owner Denis Sabbadini, tapped into a winery source. Next, they added a single stove. Whispers spread. Non-waiters wanted in. A password was issued. And, at the top of a set of rickety stairs in Meyers Place, a pasta speakeasy was born.
For the next 30 years, most of Melbourne's clued-up movers and shakers made the restaurant their late-night haunt. Politicians, police, gangsters, journos. It's rumoured the ownership of some of Melbourne's great restaurants changed hands in a round of cards. Sadly (maybe?) the infamous siege served to temper the wilder times.
Enter a slightly less notorious era for the Waiters. Sort of.
Denis Sabbadini tells me the restaurant remained unlicensed up until 1992. It was only when he was busted by young cops who didn't know better and the magistrate, a regular, urged Sabbadini to just get a licence that they went fully on book.
The dining experience has barely changed since. You can book or chance climbing the stairs. Until a recent renovation, precipitated by the roof caving in, you would sit at laminate tables, worn to their core through a million wipes. They are now solid wood. The wood-panelled walls have been repainted white, but the room remains rustic as ever, the menu still scrawled on two blackboards, never distributed.
Is there a way to do it right? You should order ossobuco rendered to fall apartness, and chicken livers, whole, fried and sweet with onions. Spaghetti bolognese made with the triple threat of pork, veal and beef, too.
Half the menu is pasta and you can get a platter, maybe stacked with meatball-laden and tangy rigatoni, eggy spaghetti carbonara, and whatever else you want from the dozen-plus options. Don't love them? Add chilli and parmesan to suit.
If you want wine, times have changed since they once asked, "Red or white?" It's still served in tumblers but today it's "Shiraz or sangiovese chianti?" Salad is now somewhat fancily adorned with a balsamic dressing.
When most restaurants tie themselves in knots trying to keep with the times, the Waiters has to weigh any changes with the likely revolt. Patrons feel they own the Waiters'. I understand. I took it as a personal affront when avocado vinaigrette disappeared and I've only been going for eight years. Legendary ex-Age journalist Mark Briggs has been coming since we was a cadet in '79 as has diehard Peter Anthony, who can proudly say the Waiters has had three generations serve four of his. Both were peeved at the replacement of the veal livers with chickens'. Neither will desert the place.
Anthony in particular remembers a period of between-job hard times when he paused patronage and was berated on return. "But we would have fed you," they said.
This is not the best pasta, ossobuco or gelati on offer in Melbourne. It is no longer the last man standing where you can get a drink. But it is, to this day, the best measure of a date: an aesthetically unsexy yet storied character. Here, under Melbourne's most fluorescent lighting, everyone, anyone, is still sheltered by the Waiters' shroud: all are welcome, none are seen.
Famous diners: Paul Keating, Gareth Evans, everyone in politics in the '70s.
Signature dishes: Veal saltimbocca; chicken livers; ox tail; spaghetti bolognese; tartufo.
Pro Tip: Keep your eyes on the door.