Es­ther Lamb

Weekend Herald - Canvas - - CONTENTS -

In 1993 I was 25, ac­cord­ing to my cal­cu­la­tions, and it was SPQR’s first full year. I’d been head­hunted to be maitre d’ by Dorthe Sch­eff­man and Johnny Carac­ci­olo who planned the whole thing. It was a piv­otal year for the restau­rant in­dus­try and for me per­son­ally. It was the first cafe/ restau­rant/bar of its kind and it reignited the whole Pon­sonby din­ing scene. It was very rus­tic: thin piz­zas and salad. And it was a step away from all that nou­velle cui­sine and wine lists that went on for­ever.

It was also a junc­ture be­tween the arts and gay com­mu­ni­ties. You could go there and al­most guar­an­tee see­ing three ta­bles of peo­ple you knew — but that all hap­pened very or­gan­i­cally.

I had turned my back on a law ca­reer and the dif­fer­ence be­tween the Dick­en­sian law firm I’d been work­ing at and the sheer joy and mad­ness of that scene was in­tox­i­cat­ing. I had met Mur­ray Beasley, my life part­ner, and I got preg­nant the fol­low­ing year, so it was that beau­ti­ful in-be­tween time in your mid-20s when you’re on fire and not think­ing about mort­gages and death.

It was also where I met David Gel­lar, who is now our busi­ness part­ner at Sios­tra. We used to call him Dr Vodka be­cause he im­ported Zubrowka and had a shed full of it.

We had so much fun. I did every shift in hot pants and high-heels and Johnny was a pea­cock on the floor, strut­ting around and let­ting peo­ple dance on the bar. That def­i­nitely hap­pened a lot.

It was crazy busy from the out­set. It was also very gay. Buck­wheat and Bertha came in one night in puffy ging­ham dresses and car­ry­ing a bas­ket and threw a ta­ble cloth on the bar and pro­ceeded to have a pic­nic.

It was al­ways full of celebri­ties but no­body would know who they are now. Pe­ter Sin­clair used to sit up with his lap­top and drink bot­tles of soave. Belinda Todd was in there all the time.

And peo­ple used cash then. I had to spend 40 min­utes at two o’clock every morn­ing count­ing all these $20 notes: Queen’s head up and folded into bun­dles of 200.

I al­ways thought it was a very open place, although it quickly got the rep­u­ta­tion that you had to be cool to go there. I don’t think that was en­gen­dered by us. Cer­tainly, the waiters were con­fi­dent and not pre­pared to put up with any shit. You couldn’t get away with that sort of thing now, but then it was all part of the shtick. I think there was prob­a­bly de­light from the pa­trons at get­ting the gay waiters to be rude to them.

Graeme Burgess was the ar­chi­tect and that orig­i­nal fit-out hasn’t been changed. That was their bru­tal­ist con­cept. They cribbed it to­gether with what they had in the space. It was Fur­ni­ture for Flats on the left and a mo­tor­bike garage on the right, which they’ve now ex­panded into. But ev­ery­thing’s stayed the same: the same chairs, the same light fit­tings, even the back room, which they could have ex­tended the restau­rant into or used to make the kitchen big­ger. The only thing they changed, sadly, was paint out a beau­ti­ful col­lage in the women’s toi­let. As told to Paul Lit­tle.

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