Warm Nights On A Slow-Moving Tram

For 25 years, the Restaurant Tram has been shuttling tourists to St Kilda and back, yet the closest most Melbournians have been is seeing it on Kath & Kim. Janet Greason takes a trip down memory lane for The Outland Institute.

1983, the year I moved to St Kilda, was also the year the Colonial Tramcar Restaurant began. To the denizens of St Kilda then, the tramcar was seen as tacky and middle class – the same as the tourists. To have three dozen people stuffing their faces as they trundled through a suburb that was surviving mainly on the dole seemed a bit rude. Another crappy function centre that just happened to be on wheels. The only positive thing was that it kept them corralled and off the streets – had they allowed the poor locals to sell their artwork and crafts each time it stopped (like they do in other third world countries) things might have been different…

By the end of the eighties I had moved to Elwood, and my snarling Pavlovian response to its bells became as infrequent as its sightings.

It was still with some trepidation, however, that my partner and I recently turned up at the Tramcar shelter opposite the casino – friends had bought us dinner on the tram as a birthday present. Like the popstars and actors that mean so much to us at a certain time in our lives but eventually vanish into thin air, I had assumed the tramcar restaurant had married a rich bloke and gone off to have his kids. I was curious to see who else would be joining us. What kind of people would want to do this?

Two young couples who obviously weren’t married (one of the young men was compulsively squeezing his girlfriend’s bottom – not something you often see in married folk – thankfully). Various assorted middle-aged couples. A family with young children (glad they weren’t on our tram). A mother and her teenage son (at least I think it was her son). Two young women (one an American with a cheese grater voice – they did get on our tram).

Just the average cross-section of Melbourne’s population.

Our friends arrived, then the trams (three at once) and we all piled on, grateful to get out of the cold. I’d been worried about this bit. Booths. To put it bluntly, I don’t do booths. Let’s just say I’d make a great opera singer, and we’ll leave it at that. I spent the whole journey sitting motionless and upright like Dame Edith EvansLady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest. As an aid to digestion, I can recommend it.

Space is obviously going to be at a premium on a tram, but any big men wanting to have a meal are basically stuffed. There didn’t seem to be any in our tram but I’d seen some in the shelter earlier. Perhaps the Maitre D’ has a crowbar and a tub of margarine ready in the kitchen?

Something that always makes me feel ‘special’ when I’m dining out is watching myself in the act. From the outside of the tram, all you can see is the Pullman-car decor of crisply pleated curtains and miniature lights, giving an Orient Express touch. What you don’t see is the mirror that covers one end of the tram. If watching oneself eat is bad enough, the mirror makes the tram look more like a fin-de-siecle brothel than a genteel, eating establishment. A fetishist’s dream. In fact, they do hold private parties…

Then the music started. I was expecting some gentle pee-arr-no (that’s the posh pronunciation), but what we got was a melange of late 1960’s lounge bar music. Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Englebert Humperdinck, Matt Monro. Some of the people were quietly singing along, but it all felt a bit anachronistic. I would have been happier with a bit of Ivor Novello. Or nothing at all. Louis Armstrong‘s It’s a Wonderful World was played at my mum’s funeral so that wasn’t getting any brownie points, and why does no one understand that That’s Amore can never ever be background music?

As the tram moved through St Kilda West and onto Fitzroy Street, I found myself pointing places out to our friends. The rat-hole flat I lived in for a year and a half. Where the old St Moritz ice rink was on the Esplanade until it burned down. Where the Palace was on the Lower Esplanade until it burned down. Where the Venue was before it was torn down to build that manky hotel. I remember it as if it were yesterday – sprung ballroom floor awash with alcohol and broken glass. If you’d cut yourself the alcohol would have kept it sterile. Even Scheherazade, the final bastion of East European Jewry and quite possibly the heart of St Kilda, will soon be no more.

For the other people on the tram St Kilda might have been a novelty, but given the ridiculous number of bars and cafes in this newer Acland Street, perhaps not. No matter where you go in Melbourne now you see the same people sitting in front of the same cafes, homogenised like the milk in their lattes.

It struck me as we trundled back along the Esplanade that for my partner and I this was a trip down memory lane, but for my friends it was probably sightseeing. Except I didn’t see anyone else looking through the windows. No one was alone, all were chatting and focussing on the food in front of them. No one else felt the need to reminisce.

Now the one thing I haven’t mentioned is the food. It all sounded very nice but I wasn’t expecting much. (I always worry about the names of things in menus nowadays. What the hell is ‘jus’? Isn’t it ‘jus’ gravy? And what’s this obsession with making a mountain out of all the food in the centre of the plate? Didn’t Richard Dreyfuss do that in Close Encounters and get in trouble for it? I seem to remember his wife leaving him and taking the kids, but these chefs are getting away with it.) I had visions of the usual inedibles doled out at function centres, like leftovers from meals on wheels.

But I was wrong. The vegetables were crisp, the eye fillet of beef I had was perfect and my partner’s chicken was also good. Everything was fine. In fact, it was better than fine. The wine was from Victorian wineries and the shiraz was a belter. All alcohol is inclusive of the cost so (technically) it’s as-much-as you-can-drink during the time you’re on the tram. My friend, who’d done the trip before with workmates, said they got totally stonkered during the three-hour late dinner trip. An enlightening experience all round I would imagine. I made do with a glass each of sparkling Chardonnay, the afore-mentioned Shiraz, water and a Drambuie. Not exactly a shining example of total temperance but not exactly (fill in topical celebrity drunk here).

Upon our arrival back at the tram stop, the four of us wandered over to the casino and kicked on for a little longer in that bar opposite all the fountains. I cannot pass through the casino’s gaming areas because the sense of despair is palpable and makes me hyperventilate. Its bright, shiny venality unsettles me. A group of footy fans had gathered in the corner of the bar and seemed to be spreading, rather like herpes. At one point the other three members of our group simultaneously dashed off to the toilets (must have been the fountains) and I was left to ponder my recent experience as I watched the floor show.

It occurred to me that if tourism is a necessary evil, then perhaps this moving restaurant is a better representative of Melbourne than the casino, with its desperate hollow-eyed glitziness. The tramcar is compact and classy, while the casino is the equivalent of Goulburn‘s giant Merino. Despite the odd false note (or decor malfunction, you choose) I thoroughly enjoyed myself on the tram – good food, wine and company. A moving restaurant might not be everyone’s idea of fun – particularly now that Melbourne’s food and wine industries have gone ballistic – but I’d rather support smaller local businesses than big multinationals. The wine is Victorian and one of their entrees is grilled kangaroo loin so you can’t get more local than that.

The next time I hear those bells probably I won’t have that Pavlovian frothing at the mouth – unless it’s just the memory of a great steak.

You can find more information on the Colonial Tramcar Restaurant at www.tramrestaurant.com.au.

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3 Responses to Warm Nights On A Slow-Moving Tram

  1. Narrelle says:

    The tram sounds like an intriguing mix of the cheesy and the charming. It’s good to know a) that the food is worthwhile and b)I am unlikely to fit in the booth. I hate to have a good meal ruined by uncomfortable seating. It does make me wonder if novelty dining will ever reach a point where people just refuse to make the leap.

    Another novelty dining experience I don’t feel quite brave enough to try (or live in the wrong locality to take advantage of) is the one I read about – maybe in the US? – which is in darkness. The staff wear infrared goggles to help diners to their seats and so forth, and otherwise you are left to enjoy the meal without the visual element of the experience. You’d have to really, really trust the staff not to put gross things on the plate.

  2. Janet says:

    There is, however, the Road Kill Cafe another invention of our American cousins which will cook anything that you find attached to your car’s grill. ‘From your grill to ours’ is their slogan. I forget what state in America but somehow I can just hear those banjos. It makes eating in darkness a plus.

  3. outlandinstitute says:

    I think that restaurant was actually here in Melbourne – see this article from The Age back in 2004 – http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2004/02/12/1076548159581.html
    – the only follow-up I can find seems to indicate it closed in 2005. It does appear in the Lonely Planet 6 Degrees television series in the Melbourne episode (that’s actually a pretty good representation of Melbourne, and it turns up a lot at places like Dirt Cheap CDs).

    Incidentally, I’m always annoyed that while openings get a lot of coverage, closings generally don’t. Whatever did happen to that staff-free EasyCinema in the UK?

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