By Rhonda Dredge
During the two successive lockdowns that have inhibited our cafe culture, some characters around the CBD have inspired others with their generosity and style.
If you look up the name Simon Hartley on Google you’ll get a barrage of quotes about him.
He’s been called a “legend” of the CBD culinary scene and someone who has led the charge on classic Italian dining.
You’ll also discover that his company went into voluntary liquidation in 2014 and that a recent stint at a new George Colombaris venture lasted just two days before it closed its doors.
Melbourne’s food scene is a volatile beast full of flamboyant chefs and restaurateurs who appear to love the celebrity status accorded to their industry.
When Hartley first opened Becco, which translates in Southern Italy as sticky beak in the kitchen, he did so with former wife, chef Liz Egan, a judge on TV’s My Kitchen Rules.
Last year when the Becco lease in Crossley St came up for renewal, Chris Lucas of Chin Chin fame swooped and secured the lease for 2021.
Hartley was quoted in the press as saying, “Two years is a long time in restaurants. We’ve got a bit of fun ahead.” Who would have predicted what 2020 would bring?
Anyone who has passed down Crossley St in the past few months would know what a stalwart Hartley has been, both to the local community and to those seeking the occasional buzz from a scene that still believed in the corporate power lunch.
On July 16, a day everyone will remember because the tally of new cases in Victorian leapt to 317 before increasing again the following day, Simon was seated at his laptop, possibly doing his figures.
Just two days earlier he had been making short blacks for customers and bringing the cups out into the laneway himself.
He posed for CBD News beside the green tiles that still define the history of this great laneway and was generously commenting about his affection for them. “It’s a great colour, so cool. It was on all of the shop fronts,” he said.
No-one knows what the future will bring so there is no choice but to be resilient. During the first lockdown Hartley re-introduced his produce store, turning his visits to the Queen Victoria Market into foraging missions for local customers.
A fortuitous decision to keep on the produce store when restrictions were eased means that he still had that innovation to fall back on.
He believes that Melbourne will cope with its current quarantine. “I think Melbourne’s a living city, climactically based, and you see this in its cafes, restaurants and theatres because of the weather.”
“In Sydney they go to the beach. We’ve got more of an indoor culture. I don’t want to say we’re more sophisticated than Sydney but we are. We’ve got a broader cultural spectrum as well.”
Hartley grew up in Noosa so he knows about cultural differences. “All I cared about when I was growing up was having a surf and finding a beer garden,” he said.
He was sent down to Melbourne for catering school and fell in love with the city. “In my industry Melbourne is the place to be. Noosa is beautiful but we have a lovely platform here for a great cultural city. There’s such diversity. It’s a perfect platform.”
Hartley and his current wife live at “the poorer end of Spring St” just around the corner from the restaurant •