Carrie Steele is awestruck by a pumping, popular and very tasty veg dining experience in Melbourne.
IF YOU’RE THINKING of whizzing across the Tasman for a change of scenery, this vegetarian/vegan restaurant is reason enough to choose Melbourne as your destination of choice. My only regret is that we only discovered it a couple of nights before we left, and not on the day we arrived.
A warning though, if you’re in a hurry and need to eat and run, you might want to choose a less popular place: by the time we finished up on the first night, the wait for a table was 45 minutes, and it was not quite 8pm on a Sunday evening.
I’m told this place was the first vegetarian restaurant in Melbourne and has been open for over 20 years. It’s heartening that it’s lasted this long, but I can certainly see why it’s a gem, despite its chaotic atmosphere. From the CBD, the 112 tram that runs up Collins Street takes you to Brunswick Road, and with tram stops on both sides of the road virtually outside the restaurant, getting there couldn’t be easier. If it’s really busy on arrival and you’re comfortable to take up the offer of seats at one of the large communal tables, then you shouldn’t have to wait too long. We were able to be seated almost immediately at one of these shared tables, which saved us the much longer wait for an individual table.
I couldn’t have envisaged how wonderful it would be to have so many choices on a restaurant menu – it was mind blowing! I felt like a kid in a candy shop, skipping from one delicious offering to another, changing my mind several times over the menu and wishing I could come back here time and time again so as to sample all of the menu. Vegan options were clearly indicated and there were lots of them.
In addition to alcohol, a great selection of non-alcoholic beverages (juices, smoothies, drinks) and some tantalising-looking desserts are also available. The ‘ginger tonic’ made of lemon juice, fresh ginger and local honey was deliciously refreshing.
Over two nights, we taste-tested some great dishes. On the first night, I started with the roti and dhal, a subtly seasoned brown lentil dhal with chunks of sweet potato, and a soft, pliable rolled roti, which I consumed with gusto and the confidence that butter had gone nowhere near it. Hubby had the brown rice balls with peanut sauce; those were lightly crumbed and crispy on the outside and beautifully moist on the inside, and a small taste left me wanting more.
My main course was rice vermicelli which was tasty and light (it reminded me of pad thai minus the egg and overly-sweet sauce) and came topped with crunchy bean sprouts and thinly sliced capsicum. Hubby had the grilled mushroom dish which reportedly was excellent. On the second night, I started with the rice balls (since a small taste the night before had left me craving more) followed by the ‘traditional stir fry’ which was just that, nicely cooked vegetables served with rice and tahini sauce. Hubby enjoyed his vegan dim sims and a pizza, with crispy spelt flour base, topped with roast vegetables and vegan cheese.
A visit to the Vegie Bar is a real eye-opener, in many respects. The first thing I love about it is the name; it takes balls to call a restaurant ‘Vegie Bar’, as I’m guessing that unless you’re vegetarian or vegan, you wouldn’t bother paying them a visit.
Which leads me to the next thing I love about it, which is that everyone who eats there seems to give a damn about what they’re eating. I loved the handwritten note on the little blackboard on the wall next to our table which said ‘OMG NO GMO’. Also worthy of note is that most of the diners here seemed to be partaking of the non alcoholic drinks: clearly they were here for the food and company, rather than just a night out.
Another thing I couldn’t help noticing is that the place runs somewhat chaotically, yet it works. On both nights we were there (Sunday/Monday) there was a queue inside the door the whole time of people waiting to be seated, thus meaning that the staff had to constantly negotiate their way around a line of people to get from one half of the restaurant to the other, carrying plates and drinks. (This queue was despite the fact that there is also an adjoining bar you can wait in, which was also full.) Then there’s the wait for food, which was kind of long: it took nearly an hour for us to get our entrées on the second night, even though we checked we hadn’t been forgotten. When it comes to paying, that’s another chaotic little episode in itself. You’d think that sometime in the last 20 years someone would have had the idea to number the tables. As it is, when you go to the desk to pay (which it seems you have to, or you’d be there all night) it is necessary to describe to the person at the till exactly where you were sitting, so they can identify which bill is yours. This indicates that there must be some sort of system to identify the tables, so why not share it with the patrons? The food I might add is reasonably priced, with our bill for two each night around the $60Au mark, including drinks.
Despite the negatives (which can all be attributed to the place being so darn busy that it’s a struggle for the staff to keep up), what is it, then, that keeps this place buzzing when restaurants all around have plenty of empty tables? What’s special about the Vegie Bar? For starters, it has a real buzz about it; the colonial window-paned frontage to the street, the converted-warehouse type interior, the eclectic mix of tables and chairs set out within inches of each other all help to make it a dining experience you’ll remember, long after the taste of the fabulous food has faded away. It was interesting watching the patrons too, and as hubby pointed out, maybe it will be the next generation after ours (i.e. the under 30s) who will take up the torch and lead the march into the vegie future. There were some older people like us (over 45s, that is), but largely the clientele ranged from late teens to mid-30s. This was definitely the largest group of vegie people I’ve ever shared a dining room, much less a table with, and here we all were, enjoying the company of partners and friends and nobody interfering with anyone else’s privacy or personal space. It was a beautiful thing to see.
There are a lot of restaurants in Brunswick Road and while most had a few patrons on the nights we observed, none of them had a constant flow of people through the door and a queue of at least 8-10 people standing waiting in line to be seated at any one time. It was hugely heartening to think that all these people were here because they wanted vegetarian or vegan fare, and it brought to mind that sweet old flick Field Of Dreams about the man who builds a baseball diamond in his cornfield on the edge of nowhere, after he hears a voice that whispers, “If you build it, he will come”. The Vegie Bar seems to stand testament to that theory. We just need more restaurateurs willing to take the leap of faith. CARRIE STEELE
Vegie Bar, 380 Brunswick Street, Melbourne (vegiebar.com.au)