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The Elegance of Dining Down Under

May 04, 1986|WALTER REISENDER | Reisender, an Australian, is a former newspaperman.

MELBOURNE, Australia — If you asked anyone to join you for a meal at an Australian restaurant before World War II, chances are that you would be offered steak and eggs or roast beef with vegetables.

Postwar immigration changed all that, and Melbourne restaurants are more than equal to their counterparts overseas, whether cuisine is French, Chinese, Italian, Middle Eastern, German or Japanese.

When you visit Melbourne and want something different--a dining experience that offers more than just food--here are four options that are special:

The Tramcar restaurant is probably the best known and most popular of the four, mainly because it has become a high-profile landmark as daily it travels around the tram tracks of the city and suburbs. Melbourne's tramway (streetcar) system is one of the best half-dozen in the world, but the idea of making one tramcar into a luxurious mobile restaurant was only conceived in 1983.

Special Laws Passed

Legislation had to be passed by Parliament; there was no facility for granting a liquor license to restaurants without a fixed address.

When you board the tram restaurant outside Melbourne's National Gallery, you will be hosted by Julio Lopez who hails from Spain and Lawrence Ivelja from Yugoslavia.

Lopez is the maitre d' who shows you to your elegant table. Ivelja has perfected the menu that makes the meal, a formidable task when one considers the difficulties of having to prepare part of the menu several hours before each trip, then finishing and serving it on the tramcar.

Furnishings are reminiscent of the Orient Express and a splendid job has been done with the decor to create a luxurious European atmosphere. The wines served with the meal are some of the best Victoria regional vintages.

As the tram trundles through the suburbs, vistas change from shopping centers to modern office buildings. Parks, gardens, the gracious homes of South Yarra and Toorak, such boulevards as St. Kilda Road, middle-class homes and apartments where working Australia lives, statues, churches, fountains, all are passed at a leisurely pace while an excellent dinner is served.

Eastern European Food

For years, Merlin's restaurant has been run by Melbourne restaurateur and chef Peter Gibbins, providing excellent Eastern European food specialties and at-the-table performances by some of Australia's most impressive magicians.

Between courses you will be visited by one of these wizards. Don't believe what you see happen right at your table. Guests will be asked to assist as coins appear and disappear, cards change in front of your eyes, billiard balls multiply.

Dinner on the Melbourne Express Steam Train is the newest of the four ventures, but already it has a great reputation among Melbourne's more affluent 25- to 55-year-olds. It takes vision to buy a 1940s steam train with carriages and completely refurbish it in the style of that period.

That is what businessman Tom Binns undertook on the first privately owned train in the state of Victoria in 130 years.

A Memorable Vehicle

Binns, former ship's officer, TV director, film producer and manager for the gold mining tourist town of Sovereign Hill at Ballarat, had traveled on some of the world's great steam trains.

The train does not run each week, but on those Friday nights when it does (you have to check the schedule with the company), you will be picked up at Spencer Street Station. As the fully refurbished 1940s steam train and its impeccable dining cars steam into the Victorian dusk, an elegant meal with some of the best local wines will be served by white-gloved, white-jacketed waiters.

The same company also runs weekend excursions, using lounge cars instead of Friday night's dining car. These trips, known as the Melbourne Limited's Swan Hill Weekend, involve travel over a line classified by the Australian Heritage Commission for its beauty.

They feature a pioneer country experience with a bush lunch, a paddle-steamer cruise on the Murray River, an Edwardian garden party lunch at a homestead and a visit to Swan Hill's elaborate Pioneer Settlement. Landau and brougham carriages carry guests to their hotel for a formal dinner.

In the Cockpit

The fourth option is the Cockpit restaurant. When the era of jumbo jets arrived with the opening of Tullamarine Airport, Melbourne's previous airport, Essendon, was used for freight planes, smaller propeller and private planes and corporate jet aircraft.

Near the viewing platform overlooking the runways was the Horizons restaurant, which was booked with light-aircraft owners on Fridays and Saturdays but languished midweek. Then the owners had an idea. They decided to buy a 10-seater aircraft and combine dinner with a 20-minute, low-level joy ride over the city.

The restaurant has been bought by Gary Savige, who, owning five other restaurants, has the know-how to build the Cockpit into a top tourist attraction. The restaurant reopened on Dec. 1 after extensive renovations and serves bistro-style meals in flight.

Tramcar--Lunch about $30 (prices in U.S. dollars), early dinner $25, full dinner $39. Merlin's--This is a bring your own wine restaurant. A three-course meal is about $19. 135 Greeves St., Fitzroy 3065. Melbourne Limited--The weekend trip costs about $208. Friday dinner, including a glass of champagne, is $60. 595 Melbourne Road, Spotswood 3015. Cockpit--Meal and flight about $32. Essendon Airport, Melbourne 3041.

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