Lygon Street: Michael Harden

Back in 1958, or thereabouts, I remember my mother taking me to La Perla Nera (the Black Pearl) for iced coffee and a gelato; the Black Pearl became Tamani’s, then Tiamo. The service station where we had an account and had the car serviced is still on the corner of Lygon Street and so is Jimmy Watson’s, where my father used to go with his colleagues from the university. My sister, an architecture student, lived above Giancarlo Giusti’s Grinders Coffee shop. He gave her free rent in exchange for her (now famous) pen drawing of a coffee grinder. As a young adult, I remember when Toto’s, Australia’s first pizzeria, opened in Lygon Street. We’d all go there after a night at Vera’s sly grog shop in Argyle Place and a few games of pool in Johnny’s Green Room in Faraday Street.

Stephanie Alexander and her Jamaican husband, Monty, opened Jamaica House. When 10 o’clock closing came in, the Albion Hotel, perched on the corner of Lygon and Faraday, became the place to hang out; the writers, students, artists and actors used to drink and argue there under the watchful eyes of the cross-eyed manager and Danny Kramer cadged beer money from the bus stop outside the front bar. There was a rumour that Danny had knifed someone in the front bar; Danny didn’t deny it. Tony Bilson took over the Albion kitchen for a while and pub food had never tasted so good before.

In 1972, I turned the old Pullar’s Dry Cleaning shop into Professor Longhair’s Music Shop; a few years earlier some doors down, Ross Reading had opened Readings Bookshop. Janni and Ian Goss transformed Mr Gradito’s tailor shop into Cafe Paradiso, Joanna O’Rourke opened the Pancake Place and punk bands played in the garage behind Cafe Paradiso. The Melbourne Filmmakers’ Cooperative was in the old Holdsworth building. Philip Fraser had started Digger magazine and launched Helen Garner’s career by getting her sacked from teaching; Digger briefly lived above Professor Longhair’s.

In the 70s, Lygon Street was the bohemian heart of Melbourne, but as Michael Harden demonstrates in his sumptuous and beautiful new book, Lygon Street, the street had a much longer and colourful history. From the early 1860s, it developed into Carlton’s commercial heart and with the discovery of gold, it became a melting pot of people and cultures. In the early twentieth century, it became the staging point for the new Jewish migrants from Eastern Europe. In 1933 a grand cultural centre, the Kadimah, was built opposite the cemetery and became home to Australia’s first Yiddish magazine and the cradle of Yiddish theatre in Australia. A young Arnold Zable and his brother Benny hung out at the Kadimah. Journalist Sam Lipski’s father ran Cafe Tel Aviv in Elgin Street and the Smorgon brothers from the Ukraine opened a Kosher Butcher in Lygon Street which was the precursor to a vast business enterprise.

The post-war period saw the influx of Italian migrants and the establishment of Italian businesses that once again changed the character of this fabulous street. Names like Benassi, Valamordia, Borsari, Donnini, Donati, Pace, Giusti, Del Monaco, Milani, Gangiatano, and Caprioli brought new life to Australia and, Harden argues, changed the way Australians looked at food and their culinary culture. Lygon Street was home to the first espresso machine, the first pizza house and the first continental delicatessen. As befits a book on arguably Melbourne’s most famous food street there are the recipes from the different eras: a rabbit stew, matzo kneidlich and chicken soup, Toto’s margherita pizza, Stephanie Alexander’s beef curry from Jamaica House, Otto Pace’s bombolone, and Shakahari’s vegetarian lasagne. For hundreds of thousands of Melburnians and countless visitors, the wide welcoming street has been a pleasure and an inspiration. Lygon Street more than does it justice – it will bring back those pleasant memories and remind us all what a treasure it still is.