The 1970s and 80s saw a dramatic change in Melbourne’s restaurant scene. The introduction of BYO licenses in the late 1960s led to more Melbournians taking their chances and opening restaurants. Venues such as Mietta’s, Clichy, and Jean Jacques by the Sea, all had a huge impact on dining in Melbourne. One of the most influential of this new crop of restaurants was Stephanie Alexander’s restaurant, Stephanie’s.

Black and white photo of Stephanie Alexander in the kitchen

Stephanie Alexander in her kitchen, photographer unknown (MS 13338, Box 16, File 7)

For those who are too young to have dined there, or just missed the opportunity, the Stephanie Alexander collection at State Library Victoria provides a taste of what it was like to eat at Stephanie’s in its heyday. The Library acquired the Records of Stephanie Alexander, 1968-1998 in 1999 as a cultural gift.

I made the decision to put all the awards and significant photographs that related to the restaurant into the State Library of Victoria, together with as many menus as I could find. Perhaps one day someone might want to know more about what happened in the Melbourne restaurant scene between 1976 and 1997.1

Stephanie’s business card, (MS 13338, Box 16, File 7)

Black and white photo of Stephanie and Janni Kyritsis at the first Great Chefs Dinner held at Rothbury Estate in NSW. Stephanie and Janni were contributing a trompe l’oeil dessert of fruits - sorbets served in the hollowed-out shells of the actual fruit.

Stephanie and Janni Kyritsis at the first Great Chefs Dinner held at Rothbury Estate in NSW. Stephanie and Janni were contributing a trompe l’oeil dessert of fruits – sorbets served in the hollowed-out shells of the actual fruit. Photographer unknown (MS 13338, Box 16, File 7)

Stephanie’s originally opened in Fitzroy in 1976, a small 50 seat restaurant with quite a spartan interior.2 Inspired by the meals Stephanie Alexander ate at small country restaurants in France, the restaurant offered a prix fixe menu – a fixed price, multi-course meal, with a limited number of choices. The menu was hand written and would change weekly. An early menu below, is illustrative of the type of dishes served at this first version of Stephanie’s. As well as the menus themselves, the archive includes recipes and menu notes for staff. Pictured below is a recipe for the pork with prunes dish on this 1978 menu – half a bottle of wine for the prunes, the other half to drink!

Menu from December 1978

Menu, December 1978, (MS 13338, Box 19, File 2)

Handwritten recipe for pork and prunes

Recipe for pork with prunes (MS 13338, Box 19, File 2)

Stephanie Alexander talks in her memoir about the inspiration she took from French chefs and their cookbooks. The ideas came quickly, she reflects: ‘I filled notebooks with concepts to be explored further – many with sketches beside the descriptions as I imagined how the dish might be presented.’3 She also covered her menus and kitchen notes with sketches, so staff could execute her vision for the finished dishes. Filed among the menus and notes in the archive are some of these sketches – the food-splattered pages providing a fascinating example of Stephanie’s creative process in action.

Photo of sketch showing how food should be laid out on plate

Sketch on the back of a menu (MS 13338, Box 19, File 1)

Photo of food-splattered, handwritten recipe notes

Recipe notes on the back of a menu (MS 13338, Box 19, File 1)

The restaurant moved to Hawthorn in 1980, into an Italianate mansion called Kawarau. The mansion began life under the name Warrington, originally a home built for Robert Robinson, a Melbourne grain merchant, in 1891/2.4 The archive includes plans and documents relating to the renovation of the home and the creation of a restaurant far more grand than its Brunswick Street predecessor. Stephanie Alexander’s ambitions were for the new restaurant to be ‘beautiful, comfortable and better than anything else Melbourne had to offer’.5 A newspaper article from the time describes the glamorous new spaces: ‘…The richly coloured and furnished dining rooms, the fine silver, crockery and glasswear, the embroidered tablecloths, the flowers throughout the restaurant. There is nothing Alexander has not considered.’6

Photo of architectural plans for Kawarau - Stephanie's Restaurant' - 405 Tooronga Road, Hawthorn

Plans for Kawarau – ‘Stephanies Restaurant’ – 405 Tooronga Road, Hawthorn (MS 13338, Box 16, File 5)

Black and white sketch of exterior of Stephanie's restaurant

Promotional brochure (MS 13338, Box 14, File 4)

Stephanie’s operated at this new location for another 17 years. Looking through the archive, it’s obvious how ahead of food trends the restaurant was. House made pickles, chutneys, preserves and bread all formed a part of the menu. Dishes changed regularly from season to season – seasonal cooking is a buzzword these days, but Stephanie’s was offering seasonal food from its very beginning in the 1970s. The restaurant shunned many of the expectations of ‘fine dining’.

I remember second-hand cutlery, and the embroidered overlays that had obviously been long used, and green beans that were topped but not tailed. I remember lamingtons and junket and crumbles. What I liked so much about the place was the sense of it trying to define an Australian style of restaurant. 7

Photo of Autumn menu for 1985.

Menu, Autumn 1985 (MS 13338, Box 19, File 2)

Stephanie’s closed its doors in December, 1997. The restaurant’s final dinner took place on New Year’s Eve that year. No expense was spared – caviar, foie gras, and champagne all featured on the menu. There is a letter in the archive from someone in Tasmania, who had been placed on a waiting list, but was writing again, politely hoping to get a seat at the dinner. They finished their letter with the plea, ‘yours, on my knees, fingers crossed and salivating’. Handwritten in capitals across the letter is the word ‘YES!’ Thankfully their efforts were not in vain.

Front cover of Stephanie’s final menu, entitled ‘Stephanie’s. 21 years of fabulous food. December 1976-December 1997’.

Final dinner menu (MS 13338, Box 18, File 5)

Photo of the inside of Stephanie’s final dinner menu, entitled ‘Stephanie’s The Last Big Bash’.

Final dinner menu (MS 13338, Box 18, File 5)

One folder in the collection is filled with letters from grateful guests, describing how much the restaurant meant to them. These letters convey the sense that the restaurant’s closing marked the end of an era. Fellow chef, Alla Wolf-Tasker, from Lake House in Daylesford, wrote, saying ‘the hole which the closure of Stephanie’s leaves…will never be filled. For me your restaurant has always been a source of inspiration and a place where we were always made to feel as though we were someone special.’ 8

Thank you card from Stephanie.

Thank you card (MS 13338, Box 14, File 6)

Even back in 1985, Stephanie Alexander saw that her restaurant had been an influence on others: ‘I believe the restaurant…changed Melbourne restaurants. I believe I stuck my neck out and took on the big challenges and changes, and others have taken up the ideas and get the credit.’ 9

The menus and restaurant-related material make up just a portion of the archive – there is much more in the collection to explore. Stephanie has continued to deposit her working notebooks with the library, most recently in 2020. Hopefully future scholars will use this rich collection to learn more about Stephanie Alexander’s work, and the history of eating in Melbourne.

  1. Alexander, S, 2012, A cook’s life, Lantern, Camberwell, Vic, p 288
  2. Page, E, 1976, ‘Stephanie’s’, The Herald, p 42
  3. Alexander, S, 2012, A cook’s life, Lantern, Camberwell, Vic, p 161
  4. Victorian Heritage Database, n.d., Kawarau, viewed 15 February 2022, https://vhd.heritagecouncil.vic.gov.au/places/582
  5. Alexander, S, 2012, A cook’s life, Lantern, Camberwell, Vic, p 178
  6. Erlich, R, 2012, Melbourne by menu : the story of Melbourne’s restaurant revolution, Slattery Media Group, Richmond, Vic, p 238
  7. Erlich, R, 2012, Melbourne by menu : the story of Melbourne’s restaurant revolution, Slattery Media Group, Richmond, Vic, p 242
  8. Thank you letter dated 19 Dec 1997, MS 13338, Box 14, File 6
  9. Erlich, R, 2012, Melbourne by menu : the story of Melbourne’s restaurant revolution, Slattery Media Group, Richmond, Vic, p 239

This article has 1 comment

  1. What a wonderful article!

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