Restaurants


One of the places where customers could buy a meal in Launceston, c 1890: the Federal Coffee Palace (Tasmaniana Library, SLT)

It was not until 1968, with the opening of the Martini in Burnie, that Tasmania had its first self-contained licensed restaurant. Why did it take so long? A Licensed Victuallers' Society was established in 1839 and it and industry organisations that followed ensured that if you wanted to dine with wine, you ate in a hotel.

The early history of hotel restaurants mirrors the colony's development. In 1818 there were some twelve licensed inns and taverns in Hobart and three outside the town, of varying quality. By 1843 there were over 160 such establishments, servicing all coaching routes. Many were rough drinking houses but some offered lodging and a dining room. It was likely to be a communal table with little choice. The 'better' classes were unlikely to eat in such places. With cheap convict labour, anyone with means had staff and strict social divisions discouraged public mingling. Things were different by the 1860s. In 1864 Edward Abbott wrote that 'at the Bush Hotel, New Norfolk, [mullet] are served in perfection. Many parties visit this locality expressly to partake of these fish'. People now went to licensed restaurants for the pleasure of the food.

There were, however, many types of unlicensed eating houses as well, including Mrs Jones' Tea, Coffee and Chop House, which was operating in Hobart in 1834 and may have been one of the first restaurants operated by a woman. Some of these coffee houses would have also been sly grog houses. The most significant development, though in the latter part of the nineteenth century, were coffee palaces, or Temperance Hotels. They provided all the services of a hotel, including dining rooms, but served no alcohol. Late in the nineteenth century, there is also evidence of Greek migrants opening cafés and, around 1913, John Storr opened the Bluebird Tearooms in Hobart, with the specific purpose of providing a fine dining experience (although now it is hard to imagine someone could conceive of 'fine dining' without wine service!).

Despite such aberrations, until the 1960s fine dining remained largely restricted to first-class hotels such as Hadley's and Wrest Point Riviera in Hobart, and the Launceston Hotel in the north. Indeed, at all levels of the market, including what was to become the ubiquitous counter meal, hotels remained the only establishments licensed to sell a glass of wine or a beer with a meal. By the late 1960s though, the pressure to weaken the restrictive licensing regulations that gave hotels a stranglehold on dining with wine was too much. It was fuelled partly by the perceived needs of tourism and also by migrants and Tasmanians who had travelled overseas. Once John Licandro was granted a licence for the Martini, the flood gates opened. In November 1968, the Monna (sic) Lisa became the first licensed restaurant in southern Tasmania. Early in 1969, the Don Camillo, the Astoria, and the Dutch Inn in Hobart, and the Scotch Thistle Inn at Ross received licences. Most of these were owned by migrants.

The types of food being served were changing too. In the 1970s, George and Jill Mure introduced Tasmanians to deep sea scale fish, mussels and the state's infant wines. Tom Samek cooked central European dishes at St Andrews Inn at Cleveland, and in Hobart Chris Stucki served fondue at Stucki's and Austrian Alf Rannegger cooked serious steak at the Beefeater. In Sall's in Launceston, James Sall served crepe suzette cooked at the table. Restaurants were no longer a peripheral aspect of Tasmanian life. This was recognised by government with the establishment of Drysdale House to provide training, a need fuelled partly by the opening of Wrest Point Casino in 1973. In 1974, the Saturday Evening Mercury began its 'Table Talk' column and in 1978 Pat Sharpe launched a magazine devoted to restaurants and good food. As interest in wine increased, unlicensed restaurants began to promote their 'BYO' status, providing wine service in return for corkage. Tasmania was acquiring a restaurant culture that has continued to blossom.

Some of the forces that shape this culture's current direction are familiar. Tourism remains the justification for continued liberalisation of licensing and an incentive for investment, and new arrivals continue to inspire, the latest being Meyjitte Boughenout at Franklin Manor, although now there are many locally born restaurateurs as well. The other trend, early signs of which Sharpe documented, is the promotion of Tasmania's quality produce in our restaurants. How much sooner might this have happened though, had the French stayed instead of just making fleeting visits in the 1790s?

Further reading: E Abbott, The English and Australian cookery book, London, 1864; P County & B Lloyd, Before we eat, [Hobart], 2003; A Alexander, 'The public role of women in Tasmania, 18031914', PhD thesis, UT, 1989.

Sue Dyson and Roger McShane