You never know what is going to be down a laneway in Melbourne. It could be a cool new bar, an art installation, or down Gills alley just off little Collins street, Gills Diner. A sign saying ‘Gills Diner: Bread and Wine’ points the way and reminded me of St John’s Bread and Wine in London. The sign suggests a simple, pared back focus and a no frills aesthetic. The buzzing eatery has a cafe section at the front and then a larger room at the rear which is the restaurant proper. The look is industrial chic with big wooden tables surrounded by the type of wooden and metal chairs that I used to sit on at school. I kept on expecting my old English teacher to emerge from the kitchen. We were a table of ten so we got a table to ourselves but smaller groups share tables. Frosted glass windows with metal trim separate the kitchen from the restaurant. Arriving at 8pm we were surprised to find the restaurant was half empty but by about 10pm it was completely full, Gills Diners patrons must be a bunch of night owls.
Laneway sign pointing the way to Gills Diner
There is no written menu so you order from a blackboard on the back wall or choose from the specials reeled off by the waiters suggesting a menu which is changed regularly. Head chef Kyle Doody’s food is rustic and hearty and there was lots on the blackboard that tempted. A great way to try out the menu is to order the antipasto selection which is actually a serving of three of the entrees for $32. Of these entrees the herb encrusted lamb cutlet was on the difficult side to share but was perfectly juicy and pink inside its crisp crust. It was a winner of a dish which left us fighting over who got to gnaw at the bone. Also good was a shallow dish of salt cod salad which looked as pretty as picture with a rainbow of colours scattered with squares of dry cod. Was it a dessert or was it an entree? I wasn’t quite sure what the zucchini and blue cheese pannacotta was but it was creamy and rich and that is what counts in my books.
Salt cod salad
The pick of the mains was the marinara ($30) which was a simple dish containing generous chunks of salmon and shellfish and an added kick of chilli. It wasn’t anything different or fancy just good, honest food. The roasted duck makes a regular appearance on the menu and it impressed with its blush pink meat and crisp, dark skin splayed on a bed bitter radachhio ($29). The only let down was the raviolo of pork and tarragon ($27) which was served in a clear broth. I misread the menu as ravioli (multiple) instead of raviolo (singular) so found myself with one huge raviolo surrounded by broth rather than the host of merrily bobbing ravioli I had been anticipating. Unfortunately the raviolo itself was a little on the bland side and needed a bit more seasoning to lift it up a notch.
Herb crusted lamb cutlet
Like the rest of the food on offer, the desserts at Gills Diner were simple and comforting. An Eton mess style offering of strawberries, cream and meringue was light and airy. I am still dreaming about Gills churros which were served fresh, sugary and piping hot with a pot of chocolate to dip them in. The wine list was small but interesting with lots of unusual producers and beer drinkers were not neglected with a range of boutique ales on offer.
Gills Diner is a fashionable looking restaurant with a palpably buzzing atmosphere but it is saved from being too cool by the friendly and down to earth waiting staff who carefully explained dishes to us. Our waiter even helpfully rushed through the meal of a friend who arrived and ordered at a later stage than everyone else so that all our meals arrived at the same time. The staff were happy for us to linger over our drinks until we were the last ones in the restaurant at almost midnight.
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Details: 360 Little Collins Street, Melbourne CBD, Australia (Ph +61 3 9670 7214).
If you liked reading this you might be interested in my post on my top ten restaurants in Melbourne (I think I might have to update it to include Gills) or in my review of St John Restaurant in London, a very different restaurant but perhaps a source of inspiration for the ethos at Gills Diner.