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>Trams start and finish my day. About 5.42am, one rumbles and scratches its way around the corner, calling out like some strange industrial, arthritic dinosaur as it grinds metal wheels on metal tracks.
Much later, about 6.30pm, another tram brings my aggressively professional day to an end, as tram number 442 - a 1927 W2 Class - more sedately accompanies me down the street to the pub. It's not carrying passengers, however; it's full of people eating and drinking and taking tourist snaps. It rolls along at not much more than my brisk pedestrian pace, hardly making the sand-dust rise from the tracks.
A moment of untypical curiosity strikes as I enter the pub. Next day, I make the booking. Yes, pubs really are powerful think tanks.
The Colonial Tramcar Restaurant kicked off about 20 years ago. One of the current owners, Craig Opie, reckons it started when two blokes got drunk at lunch and, getting on a tram to go home, asked the conductor for two drinks as opposed to two tickets. It was their Eureka moment, and they imagined how brilliant a tram that served food and drinks could be. Negotiations were made; a tram was fitted-out and, six months later, the business went under. It made fewer than a dozen trips.
"I was just a kid when I bought this business with some partners," Opie recalls. (The partners are now the O'Briens, the people behind P.J. O'Brien's pub.) "So it's been a bit of a life's work. Back then, we wanted to make the tram the best restaurant in Melbourne - yeah, times were a bit different. We wanted to compete on a food level but soon realised we couldn't. Places like Mietta's, Metz, Glo-Glo's were around.
"Then we concentrated on the whole package, not just the food, and now, well, 200 people a day - not bad."
Not bad at all. The restaurant tram is serving about 60,000 people a year, producing about 75,000 meals. (Do a quick spot of maths and you realise that 60,000 diners, at an average of $75 a head, gives a conservative figure for turnover, before tax, and staff and other costs, of more than $4.5 million per annum.)
It's won more tourism awards than Uluru, including four Australian Tourism Awards.
Not all the diners are tourists, though, Opie says. "About 50 per cent are - mostly New Zealanders and Americans these days - but the other 50 per cent are locals looking for a special event. They're 40th birthdays or wedding anniversaries.
"I'm from Sunbury, and I figure that when the sort of people I grew up with don't want to come, then there's something wrong with the business."
The night we catch a cab to tram stop No. 125, Normanby Road, South Melbourne, we get more than we expected. A crowd of about 90 people are milling about in the cold while our waiters take booking numbers and names. A third of the people are 18-year-olds dressed up as if they're bit-players in Murder on the Orient Express. Gowns, top hats and the odd tiara. It's a birthday. No doubt the Orient Express enters into more than a few people's mind's when they catch the restaurant tram.
The second tram is all theirs. We take the first tram (the famous 442 - the other two trams in service are 1940s W6 Class. One used to do the Royal Zoo route and the other worked all of its life on the school runs around Camberwell. They were certainly selected for their ability to handle visitors and unruly young people alike).
Our crowd is composed of the standard sort of local diner: 50-plus types in sportsjackets and neatly trimmed beards; groups of 40-something women with the giggles. The overseas diners include middle-aged Europeans in polar fleece, looking a bit worried about the smart casual dress requirements, and Japanese and Chinese men in casual clothes. The driver gets a lot of requests for pictures when we get back to stop 125.
Maybe it's the cold of the night, but the trams' interiors are instantly comforting and, well, they put you in a happy frame of mind. Ornate, panelled ceilings; tassels on the light-shades; dark velvet booths; dark timber finishings; gathered, brocaded drapery; heavily starched linen; heavy-handled silver cutlery and similarly well-worn but in their own way very charming silver condiment containers. Somehow the fit-out is in no way kitsch or over the top. It's cosy but not cramped.
Before the driver has gently negotiated stop 125's exit bend, you've got a glass of "champagne". Well, at least some good Hardy's sparkler, albeit one of the cheaper ones. We're not feeling like tourists in our own town; we feel more like proud Melburnians.
The trams hold 36 people plus three staff: a cook and two waiters. There's a galley, toilet and service bar. Oh, and there's a driver.
We have trepidations about the food, to be honest, but the appetiser and entrees bring further happy smiles to our silly faces. Chicken liver, cream and cognac pate - complete with an arty, swirly surface finish - kicks off dinner. It is far from yawn-yawn-not-pate-again; the richness, seasoning and texture are all spot-on.
The ride is as smooth as the pate. The drivers handle the trams with kid gloves, and all the decor inside keeps the exterior noise low. It really is like being in an old-world cocoon. You barely notice the occasional incline.
The journey takes you through Melbourne's CBD, down St Kilda Road, up High Street, then back towards South Melbourne via Glenferrie and Dandenong roads, Carlisle Street and past Luna Park.
The menu offers a choice of two entrees - a kangaroo loin or traditional bisque - then two mains - Mediterranean chicken or prime eye fillet of beef.
Cheese and dessert come automatically, announces the waiter. He's got some classic tramcar lines: "The tram has a small toilet, so, please, one person at a time." The two desserts are chocolate mousse and sticky date pudding.
Ladies receive a complimentary carnation when alighting.
As for the food, the entrees are the pick of the bunch. The bisque is silky and well-balanced - if you'll pardon the moving restaurant joke. It's generous and honest, with a big lump of prawn at the bottom.
The roo loin is flavoured with lemon myrtle, sliced and sat atop a vegetable frittata. Some bush tomato chutney garnishes the plate. It's good, too, and in one fell swoop the restaurant tram has introduced the foreign visitor to two important features of Australian life: the shellfish that swim just off our beautiful beaches and the marsupials that bounce around our rugged red centre.
The mains are more like wedding-reception-centre food, and the dry chicken breast's Mediterranean risotto cake is pretty stodgy; the sun-dried tomato tapenade offends my companion's delicate sensibilities.
Any misgivings you might have about the food, however, are soon overcome by the ride and the night - and the bar. There's a generous array on offer, given the limitations of a moving tram. After the sparkler, there's a choice of a 2001 Alistair Purbrick chardonnay or a 2000 Tahbilk cabernet sauvignon. Or there's whisky, gin, vodka, Bacardi rum, vermouth or bourbon. The two beers are Stirling light and Crown lager. Towards the end of the night you can try some Penfold's port, Hennesey cognac, Drambuie, Cointreau, Tia Maria. This is all included in the price.
Given this, we wonder how things might have been progressing on the birthday tram. But apparently it's not like that. The sense of occasion, the staff (they're professional but not starchy), and maybe the novelty of eating on a tram are enough to keep the on-board mood - well, perhaps not sober, but certainly not debauched. The restaurant tram is no mobile theatre restaurant.
But is it really a restaurant? If a restaurant is defined by food preparation, then this is more of a food reheating business. All the food - with obvious exceptions such as the cheese - is prepared on the day in a commercial kitchen.
The cooking process used is known as the cook/chill method. A chicken breast is cooked and then put immediately into a 4C blast freezer. Convection ovens are used on the tram to bring the food back to service temperature. The chef on board then plates and garnishes each dish.
Opie says that because of this process, he has to rely on ingredient quality. "The best shellfish, the best beef - I'm paying $35 a kilo wholesale for the beef. It has to be the best I can get."
The tram rolls to a finish back at stop 125. We roll out. There is a line of cabs parked alongside. The back of the cab seems like an even more depressing place than usual, its vinyl interior and graffiti of informative stickers far removed from the romance of travel in the W2 Class.
HIGHS & LOWS
· The first Melbourne restaurant to ban smoking (1985).
· One of the first restaurants to challenge liquor licensing laws (1982, and The Age's Claude Forell made a statement before the courts on behalf of the tramcar).
· The 1990 tram strike nearly sent the business under. Nowadays, the tramways union - through its drivers and maintenance crews - is keen to keep the trams on the rails, prepared to turn out in the middle of the night to do repairs.
· One customer asked if they could bring Kentucky Fried Chicken on board.
· Once a favourite of Japanese tourists, it's now New Zealanders and Americans who ride the tram. The Chinese tourist market is the restaurant tram's next big hope.
· Until 1992, the restaurant had to carry a conductor to comply with tramways union regulations about two-man teams operating all trams (in case the brakes failed). This conductor cost the restaurant tram $50,000 a year, until former premier Jeff Kennett did away with the need for conductors.
· Three trams are used for the restaurant run. All are W-class, the classic Melbourne tram that began production in 1923. Seven different models were made before production stopped in 1957. The trams were in use into the late 1970s, effectively carrying Melbourne for more than 50 years. Many W-class trams are now in museums or overseas, where they've been bought by other tram networks for transport or tourism, including in San Francisco, San Jose and Seattle.
· The first restaurant tram, built in 1927, is a W2. The others, both built in 1942, are SW6 models ('S' being a reference to their sliding doors).
· The overhead wires supply 600 volts to a tram, so the restaurant trams have to be refitted with a new undercarriage and different transformers to convert the power into 240 volts for the various appliances on board. This partly explains the pricey fitout - the second and third trams were fitted out for duty in 1992 and 1994 at a cost of about $750,000 each.
· The Colonial Tramcar Restaurant's extended family includes Bendigo's Cafe Tram - a 1952 W class - and in Adelaide the No. 378, which also runs as a restaurant; it's a 1929 H Class, the Glenelg tram, built in South Australia.
The Colonial Tramcar Restaurant runs seven nights a week, doing both an early, three-course dinner (5.45pm-7.15pm, $66) and a five-course affair (8.35pm-11.30pm, $93.50/$104.50, Saturday/Sunday). A four-course lunch runs on the weekend, or on demand (1pm-3pm, $71.50).
Phone 9696 4000 or visit the website tramcarrestaurant.com.au/The Age
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