Long before the rise of the hipster, word-of-mouth reputation cemented the Sabbadini family as culinary colonists of Melbourne’s lanes.
In the 1970s, like now, signs were unnecessary for those in the know. Down the lane and up the stairs to a plain white door which concealed the Waiters Restaurant in Meyers Place.
Denis Sabbadini’s parents Carlo and Fernanda started the dynasty which this month is being recognised with a Generational Lord Mayor’s Commendation.
Today Denis’s kids Nicole, 44, Jessie, 24, Luke, 23, and Matt, 19, continue the tradition known to certain, privileged older Melburnians as the Italian Waiters Club.
Denis is humbled and grateful for the award, which recognises the contribution that small businesses have made to the social and economic fabric of the City of Melbourne.
The post-war immigrant family settled in Fitzroy in 1950 and Carlo started working in Melbourne’s hospitality scene.
Denis recalls with horror climbing the rickety wooden steps in the mid ‘70s when Carlo proudly showed his family his new business purchase.
“My god Dad, what have you done!” Denis said. “There was nothing in this lane. There were tumbleweeds out there.”
But, like other successful “clubs”, it wasn’t the decor and location that held the business together. Simple Italian fare, Spartan surrounds and a straight-forward approach was a winning formula.
Back in the day, knowing about the “Waiters” gave you cred. Actually being welcomed by the legendary brusque waiter Paolo was a badge of honour.
Denis recalls that, as much as the young uni student told his dad that the family business was not for him, Carlo predicted it would be his future.
“He was right. I love doing this,” he said.
Mr Sabbadini says Melbourne’s famed laneway culture started here. And he can pinpoint the date.
“I remember Six Degrees coming to us in 1992 to ask if they could start a bar downstairs,” he said. “These guys had the vision. It was a good vision too.”
The building recently underwent a renovation, but it wasn’t deliberate. The building needed structural repair. As much as the clientele baulked at the freshly-painted walls and the 21st century lighting which replaced the fluorescent tubes, they’ve started to get used to it.
The menu, though, has hardly changed. It’s still brilliant. But glasses (the customers call them Vegemite jars) have replaced plastic beakers and the serving of liquor is above board these days.
It’s families like the Sabbadinis that weave the CBD’s cultural fabric. The spirit that flows through the generations ensures a continuity that Melburnians love.