The Little Things That Make France-Soir Such a Big Deal: An Oral History, 35 Years On

In 1986, a tiny French bistro brought chaos, crowds and service with attitude to South Yarra. It’s matured into one of Melbourne’s pre-eminent restaurants, attracting the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Mick Jagger. We speak to those who were there for it all – owner Jean-Paul Prunetti, long-time staff and regulars – about its place in their hearts, the pulling power of consistency and its undeniable endurance. (Plus, what’s percolating next door.)

Published on 06 July 2021

A breadbasket that never seems to empty. A dropped napkin imperceptibly replaced. A bottomless wine glass. While an exceptional dining experience is far more than the sum of these small parts, together they can spell the difference between good and great.

And the little things are key to the longevity of France-Soir, South Yarra’s tiny French bistro with a huge heart, which turns 35 this year.

Owner Jean-Paul Prunetti is a master of minutiae. And the culture he has nurtured since 1986 has seen France-Soir become one of the more important dining rooms in Melbourne.

Though he says, “I still think we’re getting there, after 35 years. It’s simple: I just want people to come here, have a good time, leave happy and want to come back. But that takes work.”

That work started in the mid-’80s, when Prunetti received a phone call from Yvon Vogel. “He had been a regular at Les Halles on Swan Street, Richmond where I worked as a waiter,” Prunetti says. “He was an ex-professional rugby player, he toured Australia, liked it here and one day found a shop for lease” – on Toorak Road, where he wanted to open a French bistro.

“It wasn’t my aim to open a restaurant,” says Prunetti, who arrived in Australia from France in 1972. He trained as a waiter in Paris from the age of 14, but travelled to try new things and, ironically, to get away from restaurants. “My idea was to be outdoors,” he says. “From 1972 to 1980 I didn’t work in restaurants. I was labouring, grape-picking, doing stuff on the road. I wanted to travel. But as soon as the kids came along, we needed to settle, and I needed steady work. We sold our little farm [in northern NSW] and returned to Melbourne.”


He and Vogel took over the deli-like South Yarra space “with black-and-white tiles and funny lights”, says Prunetti. “The kitchen had a canopy but no flue. It wasn’t right and hadn’t been doing well.” They put a small ad in the paper to say France-Soir was opening and people started to filter through. “It was busy quickly,” says Prunetti, “but very chaotic”.

Often the team would play cards after dinner service, and Prunetti tells the story of a man who approached them one day, a quiche-maker. “He spoke French and we asked him if he would make one for us,” Prunetti says. “He went into the kitchen to make it; we kept playing cards. When he brought out the quiche, it was good and I asked him, ‘Do you want a job?’”

That man was Joachim Inacio, who ended up becoming France-Soir’s head chef from 1986 to 2000. His wife, Danielle, still works at the bistro along with a handful of others who have been with Prunetti for more than 30 years.

The running of the restaurant hasn’t changed much in that time. Prunetti doesn’t take bookings online, and there’s only one phone line to call up. But like most restaurants during the 2020 lockdowns, France-Soir’s takeaway pivot was of an impeccable standard. (Have you chatted to anyone who indulged in the weekend-only lobster rolls? Superlatives galore.) But it’s people Prunetti wants to deal with, not screens or takeaways.

His bottom line isn’t perfection, but human connection. And it’s this ethos that informs his day-to-day. “You cannot replace [that],” he says. “You can do everything from home now, but we are pack animals … It’s very important to see people and connect with them.”

At face value, it seems straightforward. But it’s increasingly rare. Hospitality is a fragile beast, its reliance on the human variable both its greatest strength and weakness.

Speaking to those featured in this story about the place France-Soir has in their hearts, I was floored by their enthusiasm. Anecdotes of occasions, happy or sombre – family dinners, catch-ups, reunions. It’s delicious, it’s consistent and, perhaps above all, its endurance is undeniable.

The early days

On February 20, 1986, Prunetti and Vogel opened France-Soir to a raft of hungry, enthusiastic diners. By Prunetti’s own admission, the machine was nowhere near as well-oiled as it is today. Quite the opposite. But it was the start of something he never could have expected.

Prunetti: I think we must have had 2000 people here on the first day. Because about 2000 people have told me they were here!

As soon as we opened, we were busy. We were different compared to other French restaurants in Melbourne. We had paper on the table, [shucked] oysters to order and were badly organised, which added to the charm. It was very chaotic in those early days.

We wanted to serve food we knew and create a classic French bistro. A lot of local people travelled to Europe often and enjoyed the food we were serving, but it really was very chaotic.

Rita Erlich (food writer, Good Food Guide co-editor 1984–1998): Thirty-five years ago, bistros were such a strong part of eating in France … I remember thinking [France-Soir] was nearly right, but it didn’t match the bistros I knew in France. A few years in, I went back and thought, “Ah, they’ve got it. They know how to do what they do best.”

Desa Nikolie, aka Mama (long-time staffer): I started here as a cleaner … I ended up behind the bar and in the kitchen, and then [first head chef] Joachim [Inacio] asked me if I’d like to be in the kitchen more. [He] trained me, and even now I still do the cakes he taught me. I was young and had the energy. I was happy. I still am. This is my life; this is my family. Everyone calls me Mama. I don’t have children of my own, but I do have at least 20 kids here.

The experience, evolved

There was a period when France-Soir was renowned for service with attitude. That’s since mellowed, but not so much as to dull the staff’s quick wit. Service feels both meticulous and fancy-free. And 35 years on, Prunetti is definitely not hands-off in its execution.

Erlich: When I was co-editing the guide, we’d receive letters from readers complaining about the waiters and how rude they were. But when I was there, I watched them work – and many of the diners were ruder.

Prunetti: In the beginning, we were known for having service that was a bit … rude, you know? The waiters had some attitude. Some customers liked us for it, but it had to change. As much as it was okay at the time, it’s not okay now … My clientele’s expectations have grown.

Marko Misko (infrastructure and project lawyer, regular): What got me was the atmosphere and the service. It’s not quite ironic; it’s not sardonic. Maybe it’s the French sense of humour. I remember ordering my first steak there 25 years ago. I asked the waiter, “Does it come with fries?” and he replied, “Automatique”.

[The restaurant] almost looks effortless. It borders on buzzy, chaotic – but it’s not. Jean-Paul is up there with Gilbert Lau on attention to detail. I’ve watched Jean-Paul, and if a sitting has finished he looks over every table. It’s fastidious but it’s just not pretentious.

Geraud Fabre (head chef): If you want lamb well done, I’ll cook it for you well done. I don’t eat it like that but if you want it, we do it. You have to. We have a customer who only has raw vegetables cut in a particular way. We ended up taking photos of it when we got it right that we keep in the kitchen, so we are consistent whenever they come in.

The enduring dishes

Geraud Fabre has occupied the small kitchen since the mid-’90s, flexing his culinary muscles with a specials board that’s always worth a look, and serving a menu of unimpeachable classics: delicate sea-perch quenelles, crowd-pleasing salmon gravlax, caper-y lamb’s brains and steak frites.

Prunetti: Originally, the menu was small and written by hand. When Geraud came on as head chef in 2000, we started to explore more and more, and the menu got bigger.

Fabre: I am a chef by trade; I trained in Bordeaux at a one-Michelin-star restaurant. I arrived in Melbourne in 1996 and knocked on [France-Soir’s] door. I had a chat with Joachim and got a job a week later. I come here every day whistling, and it’s rare that I don’t want to come.

Misko: Before you even get to the “cooking”, there’s the house-cured salmon – that’s so simple but so perfect. And the steak tartare – it has to consistently be the best tartare in Australia over the past quarter-century. It’s made-to-order (including the level of spiciness), and it’s magnificent.

And the oysters are the best … My four brothers and I have an annual lunch there when we congregate in Melbourne. Always within minutes there are a few dozen oysters on the table, from various locations, with superb baguettes and butter. They’re shucked to order and in pristine condition, always.

Philip A Dunn QC (criminal barrister, regular): We’ve been going for about 25 years, and went very often when we lived around the corner. My wife always has the salmon; I’ll have the terrine or onion soup and am fond of the hanger steak.

Alex Wilcox (Prince Wine Store co-owner, regular): My go-to dishes are the salmon gravlax, I often have the rabbit special, and the roast chicken is the best in Melbourne.

France-Soir owner Jean-Paul Prunetti
Geraud Fabre, France-Soir's head chef since 2000

The burgeoning wine list

From opening as BYO-only, to adding a tiny list to the back of the menu, to now having more than 2000 entries, the wine program runs the gamut from big, bold and French to entirely lo-fi, in line with Prunetti’s taste. For almost a decade it’s been presided over by sommelier and wine buyer Pierre Stock, with thousands of bottles sitting in a wine warren above the bistro.

Prunetti: I always drank wine from early on but wasn’t serious about it. My business partner Yvon was more cultivated in wine and he put me on to Burgundy. Most people I knew drank Burgundy …. I don’t like Bordeaux, I don’t drink [it].

Yvon initially taught me to never have the wines too cold, for a start … I’m not an expert. I like natural wines, I like the philosophy behind them.

Misko: Quite simply, the list is one of the very best in Australia. It’s exciting ordering. Yes, there are expensive wines on the list, but that’s because they’re rare and brilliant. Within the context of the quality and depth of the wine list, the prices are very good.

Dunn QC: The depth and breadth of the wine list is extraordinary! I wish my knowledge of French wine was greater than it is, but the staff are very helpful. If I order the duck, I’ll go for a red Burgundy. If I have the fish, I’ll seek out a chablis or white Burgundy. And you’re not presented with one or two bottles, but pages of them.

Wilcox: It’s one of the great French wine lists in the country. [It] includes the best Burgundies, satellite communes, wines from the Jura.

Michael McNamara (Prince Wine Store co-owner, regular): As someone who works in the wine industry, it is where I first tasted all the great wines. We had a wine group that would meet once a month at France-Soir and Jean-Paul was incredibly generous with the wines. He would often only charge for the food. It enabled those of us who couldn’t afford it to try some of the greats.

[Jean-Paul] has a great viewpoint on wine. He says he’s not an expert, but he gets wine on a different level. He’s taught himself, he’s autodidactic, and it’s given him a perspective on wine that’s different to someone who has been formally trained.

The rock-star cameos

France-Soir’s effortless cool makes it a sanctuary for celebrity clientele. And there are some tales for the ages: Bruce Springsteen’s 3am Toorak Road cricket match, and Mick Jagger not getting a table on Good Friday – unlike Keith Richards and Ron Wood, who autographed the mirror (Prunetti is a dedicated Stones fan).

Bruce Springsteen at France-Soir in 1997

Fabre: You can be God in here and no one notices. No one is hassled. When the Stones came, their security thanked us for being so relaxed and just looking after them.

[On Good Friday in 2006, Mick Jagger] came in and asked for a table. We didn’t have one straight away and asked him to wait for a few minutes, but he couldn’t. “I have to feed the kids,” he said.

[During one of Bruce Springsteen’s Melbourne visits], it was about 2am and [he and his team] wanted tequila. We didn’t have a premium tequila in-house at the time, so went to get them some. They had some shots and then they had a cricket match in the middle of Toorak Road at 3am – or was it 4am? – and used oranges for the ball.

Danielle Inacio (long-term staffer, first head chef Joachim Inacio’s wife): So many famous people come here. My favourite celebrity was Joe Cocker, he came a few times. He was a very nice man. I remember he had steak frites and a glass of Côtes du Rhône.

Nikolie: [Late, great music-industry godfather and Mushroom Group founder] Michael Gudinski came in quite often, and one day he asked me something and I said, “I’m nobody here,” and he said, “Don’t you ever say that to me, I don’t want to hear that. To me, you are somebody.” He was a legend. We loved him.

The lasting legacy

While glorious, the above are A-list blips in the lifetime of a bistro that has cemented itself, with subtle conviction, as one of Melbourne’s pre-eminent dining experiences.

Misko: The uncompromising pursuit of excellence in everything the place does – without even a hint of hubris – is something to admire. Jean-Paul is doing what he was born to do … At the end of the day, France-Soir has real soul. There’s nothing else like it in Melbourne – or, come to think of it, anywhere else in Australia.

Erlich: Over the years, its identity has been so strongly established and it’s gotten stronger and stronger … It’s a very important part of Melbourne. It stands out on its own.

McNamara: I’ve been going for 25 years. It’s still revered as it’s so consistent. The service, the food – it’s like an old jacket you put on and it feels right.

Dunn QC: The parking is difficult, the room is noisy, it’s crowded, but it’s undeniably French and I will keep going.

France-Soir in July 2021

Looking forward

“It’s all about generosity,” says Prunetti. He’s sitting across from me as we share a grilled turbot and a salad of leafy greens. “I’m from the old generation, and it is imprinted into us that the client is always king, the boss, the one who pays and who has to be served. Like I say a lot, it’s about making them happy, making sure they come back.”

There’s talk of Prunetti opening a bar right next door to France-Soir, but no date has been set yet. What we can predict, though, is that – after 35 years honing his craft – Prunetti will again strike the perfect balance between winning dishes, outstanding wine and sharp service.

“I try to keep it as simple as possible,” he says. “I don’t try to squeeze the lemon too hard; I never have. I’m not greedy. [Hospitality] has basically been a part of my life for a long time.”

And he’s showing no sign of changing that. “Retire? No, I don’t have any desire to stop,” he tells me. “I’d like to take it easier, sure, but I’m happy to be here. After such a busy life, I can’t just stop like that … I still have a lot of energy. I come with a good spirit every day. I get pissed off every day, too, but you know wine always fixes things,” he says with a smile.

As we continue chatting, my eyes wander around the bustling dining room. Prunetti instinctively tops up my glass, but I don’t even notice until we’re once again mid-conversation. It’s just another one of those little things.