St Kilda Dining Royalty

St Kilda Dining Royalty

St Kilda may have restaurants on every corner but really...

Melbourne Donovans - 40 Jacka Boulevard, St Kilda | 9534 8221

Melbourne Stokehouse - 30 Jacka Boulevard, St Kilda | 9525 5555

Melbourne Cicciolina - 130 Acland Street, St Kilda | 9525 3333

Melbourne Cafe Di Stasio - 31 Fitzroy St, St Kilda | 9525 3999

75+ years of dining excellence

The Herald Sun Digital Edition: All SAINTS

Simon Plant on the secret to the success of St Kilda's restaurant royalty

Luna Park and The Espy, the Palais and the pier - all of these are St Kilda landmarks and so, in their own way, are the six people gathered for lunch at Donovans.

Gail and Kevin Donovan opened their eponymous restaurant on St Kilda beach 21 years ago.

Frank Van Haandel's cruisy Stokehouse further down the boardwalk has been around even longer, for 29 years.

And Cicciolina? The women behind that beloved restaurant - Virginia Redmond, Barbara Dight and Lisa Carrodus - are celebrating a quarter of a century on Acland St.

Tally those numbers and you're looking at 75 years of hospitality experience around the one dining room table. Raising a celebratory glass, Gail declares: "That, I think, makes us all saints."

Indeed it does. Which is why Taste has brought St Kilda's restaurant royalty together to get a bead on two things: Why have their businesses endured so long? And why have they stuck with St Kilda?

These are fair questions because this suburb by the bay has a history like no other. Melburnians promenaded under its palms in Edwardian days. Brawling soldiers roughed the place up in wartime. And post-war European migrants bequeathed it bookstores, delis and continental cake shops.

By the early 1980s, when punk was turning up the volume at the Seaview Hotel's Crystal Ballroom, St Kilda's eating-out scene was slumping. The news was more about needles than noodles. But restaurateur Rinaldo "Ronnie' Di Stasio decided the grungy end of Fitzroy St - with "art, bohemia and slight touch of the seedy' - was just the place to open a classic Italian restaurant. Cafe Di Stasio, serviced by whitejacketed waiters, debuted in 1988 and still thrives on the same site.

Van Haandel says: "Ronnie was really gutsy moving in when he did. That was a big vote of confidence in St Kilda."

Di Stasio, travelling in Italy with restaurant general manager Mallory Wall, was unavailable to accept his invitation to lunch at Donovans.

But his guiding spirit and that of the late Donlevy Fitzpatrick - the hospitality visionary who gave St Kilda the Dogs Bar, Harley Court and Melbourne Wine Room - was often invoked as conversation unfurled over wagyu bresaola, tuna crudo and pork and fennel chipolatas.

"Going to Ronnie's place was a Sunday night ritual for us for almost seven years,"Kevin Donovan says.

That was before Donovans opened in 1997.

What made them decide to stake their future on an old bathing pavilion behind Luna Park?

"We were sitting on St Kilda beach, many moons ago, dreaming of creating our own 'house on the beach' ,' he says. "This just seemed the right place to call home.'

More than one million guests have visited Donovans since then, devouring 100,254 bombe alaskas.

This classic dessert has also been on the Stokehouse menu since day one, enhancing the restaurant's longstanding reputation as "party central' .

Nodding towards the Donovans, Van Haandel says: "I don't think we've ever seen each other as competition. We have the utmost respect."In 2014, their kinship firmed into friendship when Stokehouse burnt down in January, followed seven months later by a fire at Donovans.

"We thought we were going to be next,"Cicciolina's Dight says. The room erupts with laughter. But later, reflecting on the inferno, Van Haandel admits rising from the ashes was "a struggle ... the hardest thing I've ever done in my business life, that's for sure".

Donovans, only partially damaged, was restored to its former glory, while Stokehouse re-emerged two years later in an entirely new architect-designed building.

Van Haandel explains: "I thought we should take the opportunity to make it something uniquely St Kilda. With sons in the business, I guess I wanted to leave a mark on the foreshore as well."

Cicciolina hasn't changed much at all. Given the odd "freshen up", this bohemian bolthole, screened from the street by wooden blinds, still has tightly squeezed tables and an outside lavatory. The food? Still Italian-ish and turned out with style by Cicciolina's one and only head chef, Redmond, who signed on in 1993.

Carrodus, who co-manages the business, says: "We've been serving families and their children since then. Now, those children are teenagers coming back to 'the Cicc' with their dates.'

Gail says: "We're blessed to be in St Kilda. This suburb has made our businesses, for sure, but when you look at all of us and wonder why we've been here so long, it gets back to how we really care for our customers."

Donovans, Stokehouse and Cicciolina were conceived in an era before the internet, before social media and allergy alerts. All three have moved with the times, watching margins dwindle and wage costs rise as they go. But the biggest challenge has been staying the course in St Kilda, through thick and thin.

Right now, much of Fitzroy St looks down at heel. Shuttered shops, convenience stores and all-night chemists surround Cafe Di Stasio.

Mallory Wall, via email, reports: "We are lucky, we're still busy both with a strong local clientele and guests who make the journey specifically to us but gone are the days when families would take Sunday walks up and down what should truly be one of Victoria's great boulevards. An ill advised bike track (reducing traffic and accessibility to businesses) on one side of the street and a tram super stop has significantly altered the way Fitzroy St is used.'

Acland St, meanwhile, is a quieter, duller place following its partial closure to car traffic. But the restaurateurs lunching at Donovans see some cause for optimism. The Palais has been refreshed, The Espy is reopening in November and TV's The Block has given The Gatwick a makeover, with producers snapping up another St Kilda site - Grey St's Oslo Hotel - for its next series.

Gail says: "St Kilda is like a football team that's had all these amazing players and at some point, they get older and the next generation has gotta come through. I think Fitzroy St and Acland St will grow back, maybe in a better way than before.'

Van Haandel hopes stability does not come at the expense of St Kilda colour. "When you look at where St Kilda was 25 years ago, I don't think it was any more dangerous but it was very bohemian, risque and far more colourful than it is today.

"We need more personality back in the picture. Keep the rents down in Fitzroy St and younger chefs might be willing to come in and give it a go. Or imagine if you had a Chris Lucas (Chin Chin) come in with a popup (restaurant). You'd have crowds around the block."

Speaking of crowds, it's one of the things that keeps Van Haandel by the beach at St Kilda.

"I love watching people and that's when you see the world out your front door. People going for a swim, rollerskating, being playful ... there's a lovely vibe.'

The Donovans agree. Gail relishes those bright spring or autumn mornings when "suddenly, the sun comes out and you've got this amazing plethora of people just turning up. They look spunky and decrepit and gorgeous and interesting. Bit like St Kilda, really.'


Melbourne Cafe Di Stasio - 31 Fitzroy St, St Kilda | 9525 3999

Opened: 1988 Proprietor: Rinaldo 'Ronnie' Di Stasio

Signature dish: Cotoletta Milanese


Melbourne Cicciolina - 130 Acland Street, St Kilda | 9525 3333

Opened: 1993 Proprietors: Barbara Dight, Virginia Redmond, Lisa Carrodus Signature dish: Blue swimmer crab souffle with champagne velout© Staff: Around 20 St Kilda is 'Home to our family and friends and years of lifelong customers.'


Melbourne Donovans - 40 Jacka Boulevard, St Kilda | 9534 8221

Opened: 1997 Proprietors: Gail and Kevin Donovan

Signature dish: Bombe Alaska Staff: 70 St Kilda is 'A picturesque window to Melbourne's sensational sunsets.'


Melbourne Stokehouse - 30 Jacka Boulevard, St Kilda | 9525 5555

Opened: 1989 Proprietor: Frank Van Haandel Signature dish: Seared tuna, wasabi cream, sesame & soy Staff: 110 St Kilda is 'Energycharged , risqu© , bohemian, Art Deco - all the things that have kept me here and loving it for nearly 30 years.'
St KildaVictoria

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Donovans | St Kilda



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