Melbourne, as this year's host for the Olympic Games, is organizing a fiesta of international food more authentic, more elaborate—and, possibly, more perilous—than has ever been risked in concerted food planning anywhere else.
This bland and gracious city of a million and a half on the southern edge of the Australian continent has always been noted for its mannered and urbane hospitality, but it has been mainly staid British hospitality for staid British people.
Now, flushed with a new international fervor, the settled purpose of Melbourne's restaurants, hotels and private homes is to give visitors from all parts of the world an almost wanton festival of food that will make them feel at home if they stick to their national dishes or on a gastronomic merry-go-round if they try the lot.
There are two parts to the program. The first, of course, is the entertainment of the athletes—6,000 of them plus officials of the competing nations. This will all be done in the Olympic Village at Heidelberg, built specially for the Games in a sunny, semirural glade at the edge of the city. There will be 12 separate kitchens, producing more than 5,000 dishes to appease just about every palate on earth.
But away from the Olympic Village, Melbourne is developing in international food a quality and variety that it would never have contemplated 10 years ago. At least eight of the city's hotels—the Savoy Plaza, the Australia, Menzies, Chevron, the Oriental, Scott's, the Windsor and the Oxford—have chefs of international renown, capable of turning out the highest-quality food. It will not be served as elaborately or as ceremoniously as at the Waldorf-Astoria or Claridge's, but many of the dishes will be as good.
After the first half a dozen or so, though, the hotels slope away precariously. None, however, will ever approach Sol McDermott's old Madhouse. McDermott, Melbourne's oddest hotelier, has since sold the establishment and now owns the Great Western, but in his more florid days he was given to printing up lurid labels emblazoned with the Madhouse name and pasting them on his guests' expensive luggage. The labels bore a villainous caricature of McDermott as a warder, with a bunch of enormous keys, and had a space for the name of the patient.
Inmates of the Madhouse could expect—and often were victimized by—the rarest of pranks. To welcome the English comedian Tommy Trinder to the Madhouse, McDermott put a moth-eaten carpet across the pavement and lined each side of it with dead flowers stuck in broken jars. Then he rounded up a dozen of Melbourne's most decrepit and most dependable alcoholics and paid them to teeter and chatter incoherently beside the carpet as a guard of honor. Over the door he hung a sign reading, "McDermott's Madhouse Welcomes Bob Hope."
There are at least four Continental restaurants in a class with the hotels—the Florentino, Molina's Imperial, the Ritz and the Venezia. Though the food at all is excellent, any gourmet in Melbourne will tell you that the best to be had is at the Oxford Hotel, a small two-story place that shrinks back humbly among the taller buildings at the corner of Swanston Street and a'Beckett Street, near the edge of the city's square-mile business block. The Oxford has a front bar usually filled with garrulous artisans in overalls. If you were innocently in search of fine food, you would look at the commonplace fa�ade, take one sniff and pass on. But in a small dining room at the back the proprietor, the bluff Maurice Johnson, and his Dutch chef have built up a menu distinguished by its combination of Continental dishes and a fine array of Australian food, some of it unprocurable anywhere else in Melbourne.
The Oxford is building a new cellar which will hold 400,000 bottles of wine, but, pending that, Johnson has all the superb chateau wines of France, most of the best champagnes, some broad and heart-warming old Spanish brandies as well as cognacs, delicate whites from the Moselle and the Rhine and, in addition, fine Australian wines. The Mildara Supreme dry sherry (made at Mildura on the Murray River), Mount Pleasant claret (from the Hunter River valley, north of Sydney), Great Western champagne (from the settlement of Great Western in Victoria) or any of the three great products of the Barossa Valley in South Australia rank with the world's best and cost roughly a quarter of the price of imported wines.
Johnson and his Dutch chef turn out an exquisite rabbit Australian—a three-quarter kitten rabbit, boned, rolled and seasoned with rabbit liver and herbs, and braised in wine and butter. A minor dish of the house is a minced mixture of cock's comb, chicken and ham, rolled into balls, deep fried and served with lemon slices under the unnecessarily forbidding title "bitter balls." They are different and excellent.