Saturday, 30 June 2012

Food Trekking by the seat of your pants

Most of the time our food treks are highly planned and organised right down to the last detail.  Restaurants and chefs are researched and menus are downloaded if they are available.  We usually know what we are going to order before we set foot in the door.  All the travel plans are nutted out, even the tram numbers, routes and cost of airport transfers are factored into the scheme.  Nothing is left to chance.

That made me stop and think, what would happen if we did leave everything to chance?  It’s an interesting idea and I decided one cold and rainy Melbourne morning while Kelly hung around the hotel, to give it a go.  Armed with my camera and trusty umbrella, I set off on foot down Bourke Street and into the mall.  The cold wind and constant rain doesn’t scare off Melbourne people from crowding the city streets.  Even the buskers are in full swing as I just meander in and out of arcades and lanes taking in the wonderful sights, sounds and smells. 

There really is something to be said for the atmosphere of Melbourne in the winter.  The fashionistas are dressed to kill in the latest winter woollen and leather creations.  High boots and colourful warm scarfs, skinny jeans and leather jackets seemed to be everywhere.  Luckily I’m dressed well enough to blend in.  I wouldn’t want to stick out like a Queenslander tourist.  I was really enjoying myself as I pushed my way through the crowded alleys and arcades around Little Collins Street and Flinders Lane.  The number of cafes and restaurants is mind boggling and the smell of cooking food absolutely mouth watering. 

The architecture and decorative façades on the streets and in the arcades make Melbourne one of the most photogenic places in Australia.  It was a delight to just snap away at impressively domed ceilings and stain glass windows, beautiful mosaic flooring and colossal stonework.

Eventually I found myself walking up Flinders Street towards the corner of Swanston Street, where situated on the corner is the iconic Young and Jacksons Pub.  It was nearly noon so I thought this was a great time to have a beer and check out this historic building from the inside.  I walked in and asked where the famous painting of Cloe is and was directed upstairs. 

The luxury and opulence that greeted me was staggering.  Plush chesterfield lounge chairs and couches were arranged around the splendid room where patrons relaxed and chatted with the view of Flinders Street station and Federation square just outside the huge windows.  Opposite the bar hangs the floor to ceiling painting of the nude woman known as Cloe.  Apparently the model has a sister named Zoe who was also immortalised by the artist in 1875 and that piece of art now hangs in a bar in London.  One day I’d like to have a beer at that pub and compare nudes.  I think I started to feel a bit embarassed about staring because she seems so young.  The painting of Cloe is priceless and the security surrounding her is very subtle, even though I did get close I didn’t dare try to touch it for fear of being scooped up by fierce armed guards who must be hidden away here somewhere.  It really is a magnificent piece of Melbourne history.  You'll have to do a google search for the artist because I forgot to ask who painted it.  Pretty silly of me I know.

Cloe needs no introduction.

After inspecting the many different beers on tap I decided to have a pint of Young and Jacksons own pale ale.  It was actually only a half a litre not a pint but that’s still a large glass of beer.  The ale is cold and crisp and infused with a hint of cloves.  It’s not too sweet and is absolutely delicious.  I’m not sure what the alcohol content is but by the time I had finished the glass, I had a big smile on my face.
Cloes Bar at Young and Jacksons Pub.  Craft Beer at it's best.

While I sat sunken and snug in the plush leather of a chesterfield, I enjoyed the atmosphere and décor and noticed that behind the bar area is a Tapas bar.  The menu looked quite extensive and the smell was captivating but I was thinking about something a bit more adventurous for my lunch, and so headed off to continue my not so planned adventure.
I left the pub and walked down Swanston back towards Bourke checking out every nook and cranny.  I came to a very interesting arcade that caught my eye as it had an intricately domed lead and glass ceiling that was very definitely art deco in design.  As I walked into the arcade I came to some elevators that confirmed my suspicions about the age.  Large brass lettering spelled Nicholas Building above the doors and brass framed tenants boards stood on each side.  This was really lovely so I started taking lots of photos.

Art Deco Beauty. Nicholas Arcade, Swanston Street.


That’s when I heard one of the elevators opening and as the door was half opened I realised that someone was actually pushing it open.  Also I saw that the floor of the elevator was still a foot too high.  That’s when I was so surprised to discover an older lady at the controls driving this thing down level with the floor.  I couldn’t believe it.  This was a manually operated lift with an operator to control it.  I didn’t think elevator operators still existed so I just had to introduce myself and bombard this poor woman with questions.

              Joan having a break in Tims lift

Joan and Tim.  Last of the Mohicans.

The operator is a lovely lady named Joan who had been operating this lift for over thirty years.  The inside of her lift is covered with photos, cards and other memorabilia of her career at the helm of the Nicholas Building Elevator number one.  The second lift arrived with a young man at the controls.  His name is Tim and he hasn’t been at it for very long and according to the pair it will all come to an end very soon.  It seems that the old lifts aren’t very reliable and are due to be replaced with automatic lifts sometime in 2012.  That will be the end of an era as the very last elevator operators in Melbourne either retire or find other employment.  It’s hard to find out for sure but I’m pretty sure Joan will be the last of her kind in the whole country. 

She took me for a ride up the eight stories in her lift and told me that she once had a job before this one.  Joan had worked as an elevator operator for the famous Buckley and Nun department store for fifteen years.  Well that sealed it for me.  She is an absolute legend and I was so lucky to have bumped into her when I did.  I felt like I was chatting with a real live museum piece that people will only be able to read about in history books.  Joan’s not sorry though.  She’s looking forward to her retirement and doesn’t see the progress of automatic elevators as such a bad thing.  I bid her farewell and headed off to see what other unexpected treats this city had for me.

It didn’t take too long to find out either.  Just a little ways down Swanston Street I noticed groups of young people going into a doorway that I first took to be a yoga centre.  On closer inspection I saw that it was actually some sort of restaurant called Crossways Urban Yoga.  The sign said it was the best value vegetarian food in town and so I had to investigate.  I went up the stairs and on the first level was a large dining room with a serving station at one end.  A sign informed me that main, dessert and drink were $7.50 for all you can eat or $5.50 if you have a healthcare or pension card.  I quickly surveyed the crowded room and saw that this wasn’t some charity soup kitchen by the look of all the suits and designer clothing that was wrapped perfectly around the diner’s bodies.  This was something special. 

I was intrigued by the atmosphere and dazzled by the smell of the beautiful food, for by now I was starving and I just had to join the line to the servery. When I got to the end of the line I paid my money and was given a huge plate of vegetable curry topped with a large pile of poppadums, a bowl of sweet semolina pudding with custard and directed to the fruit juice dispenser at the end of the counter.  I took my feast to a table where there was just enough room for me to sit after receiving smiles from all those present and joined them for lunch.  The curry was by far the best vegetarian dish I have ever eaten.  The curry was tasty with a hint of spices and the texture of the vegetables was perfect.  The Pudding was also delicious and the best thing was, it was all you can eat, so I did.  After the second helping I could hardly move but it was worth it.  The community atmosphere was delightful.  Everyone was friendly and polite and the dining room was clean and bright with an uplifting vibe.  If I lived in Melbourne, this is where I would probably have all of my lunches.  A young fellow I was sitting next to told me I had to take my plate to a scullery bench, scrape and stack it, if I was finished eating.  No problem, after all that’s what we do at home after we eat and for $7.50 all you can eat I’d even wash it, but that wasn’t necessary.  The Crossways is run by the Hari Krishna organisation and they do a marvellous job too.  I was surprised that I wasn’t given any religious pamphlets or approached by anyone evangelising or harassed in the slightest.  I felt comfortable and safe and I recommend having lunch there to everyone.  It’s not just cheap food.  It’s really good quality vegetarian food.

From the people at my table I learned that folks from all walks of life come to the Crossways for lunch, Uni students, shop assistants, travellers and professionals, you name it and people come together to enjoy each others company and to enjoy the meat free cuisine. 

So, now I feel that my ad hoc food adventure is almost complete and I should probably head back to the hotel for a nap.  After all we have reservations at some high end expensive restaurant for dinner where we’ll probably eat some ridiculously small portion of something ridiculously expensive and think it’s wonderful.   Off I go down Swanston Street once more where I find a café selling the most heavenly smelling pizza for only $1.50 a slice.  I couldn’t resist.  I staggered back up Bourke Street under the weight of two helpings of vegetarian curry and two slices of yummy pizza in my belly.

I really had a fabulous day just opening my eyes and finding little hidden treasures tucked away in the folds of this wonderful city.  A priceless piece of art, the last link to the good old days when elevators were operated by people who smiled and asked how your day was going, an amazing vegetarian restaurant, a unique and delicious boutique beer and some fantastic arcades and buildings.  In future when we plan a Food Trek, I’m definitely going to slot in a day here and there for exploring and letting the natural flow of the city take me on an amazing adventure.  Flying by the seat of your pants is sometimes better than following the best laid plans of mice and men.


  1. Hi nice information about Food Trekking by the seat of your pants.

  2. Sometimes I feel like a Stepping Stone... I am that kind, young lady that offers a wanderer food 'n drink off to the side of the road -- in the middle of nowhere as they journey into the next phase of their life. I am that kind, young lady that will change a stranger's life forever, and be a burned out memory in the back of their mind... I was that lady with the sad green eyes, the kind smile... The one that offered you a helping hand and good conversation while you ate your food.

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  3. “Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.”
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