It must have been some time last year not long after I took the job at the Park, aka, the Chalk Face, when I first realised that the old milk bar opposite Merri Creek Primary School had become a little neighbourhood cafe. Only five minutes’ walk from the Park through a system of lanes and then a right turn into Miller Street, Julio’s soon became a regular haunt of colleagues and family members seeking to ‘de-institutionalise’–as a friend in my office puts it.
The place appeared to have a loose connection with Spain: Spanish tortilla (the one that’s like a potato and egg frittata, not the Mexican wrapped variety), with tomato rubbed bread, flan and Portuguese tartlets were usually on the menu. In winter, to the delight of us vegetarians, soups involving chickpeas usually turned up. The atmosphere was cordial enough, and with inside and on-the-footpath seating and wireless internet connectivity, Julio’s soon attracted young parents flaunting babies like fashion accessories and the local bohemian set nursing lattes while talking about The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas.
The menu, however, always struck me as pricey for off-Brunswick Street. You can certainly do better in those few unpretentious ethnic cafes that still exist in High Street and Northcote Central–or for that matter, in Syndey Road, home of the Lebanese A1 cheese-and-spinach pie that is also served at Julio’s. But the table service was cordial enough, the coffee and green tea were all right and then there was always the location, location, location.
I think I first noticed Julio’s standards slipping early this year during the unrelenting heat wave that led to the Black Saturday bushfires. Several items went off the menu and customers suddenly had to order at the counter because the staff claimed to be to hot to be bothered. Then in subsequent visits even in cooler weather, the quality of the food became very uneven. One day recently when I met V there for lunch, the chickpea soup looked–and probably was–the dregs of the pot. It was wanly accompanied by a small slice of dry bread. Two days later when I went there with a smartly attired and personable young male colleague, however, we were served at the table and the soup arrived in massive bowls with several slices of excellent sourdough bread and chilled butter. Yesterday D and I actually got table service–but it was 12:40 and the soup wasn’t ready yet! We settled for the zucchini tortilla and the goat cheese, spinach and red capsicum sandwich, respectively. Not bad.
My doubts concerning Julio’s apparent tendency to devalue women costumers had first set in about a month previously, the morning that three high-powered, articulate, clever and well dressed middle managers turned up at Julio’s at 7:30 am for a power breakfast: T, M and I (in case you somehow did not recognise us from the description). I arrived first in one of my best Anglican grammar school suits, though admittedly I was towing a shopping trolley full of Year 12 SACs.
‘Good morning!’ I said cheerily to the saturnine, designer-stubbled youth behind the counter. ‘I’m waiting for friends, but meanwhile I’d like a cappucino’.
His response, and I do not exaggerate, was: ‘Grrrr. Urgh.’
When my colleagues arrived soon aftewards, both the barrista and a mean-faced waitress studiously ignored us. When our orders did finally somehow arrive, the serves were insultingly tiny or poorly thrown together–much diminished in quality and quantity since the previous year. Throughout the meal, the waitress was as slow, rude and dismissive as Mr Nice Guy, who was still glowering behind the counter.
Notice to Julio’s: we are clients you should try to butter up and keep on side. We are bellwethers from the Park and the local community and people follow our lead. And I happen to know that one day last week another colleague and a close friend managed to catch the tram to the Tin Pot in North Fitzroy and back during the Park’s lunchtime. And anyway it’s only a ten minute walk for the fleet of foot. Julio’s, lift your game or location alone may no longer save you.