THE YEAR THAT
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.