“The idea, for me, has always been to not create another Italian restaurant, because Melbourne has a lot of great Italian restaurants,” says restaurateur Chris Lucas.
Instead, his new Italian steakhouse Grill Americano is a revival of sorts – a “reimagining [of] the amazing grills and brasseries that we used to have here in Melbourne back in the ’60s and ’70s and early ’80s”, Lucas tells Broadsheet. He recalls growing up with restaurateur Bill Marchetti’s iconic, now-closed Tuscan Grill and Latin (which was reportedly frequented by Frank Sinatra, Liza Minnelli and Sammy Davis Jnr), and, of course, the enduring Grill at Guy Grossi’s Florentino.
But, for the man also behind Chin Chin, Baby Pizza, Kong and Hawker Hall, it’s not just about reviving a genre we see little of in Melbourne these days. It’s about playing a meaningful part in the revival of the city itself, after two years’ dormancy.
“After opening Yakimono and Society in the middle of a pandemic, it’s a much more pleasurable exercise.” It’s also one he fast-tracked, bringing forward the opening to ride and amplify the momentum that’s coming back to the CBD – as office workers return to their posts, business lunches make a comeback and restaurants finally begin to feel a real sense of reignition.
At the base of 101 Collins – labelled by city suits as Melbourne’s “tower of power” for its high-profile banking and legal tenants – he’s taken the grills of years gone by and modernised, fancified and added some undeniably Italian flair. The grandeur and glamour of the dining room – and what should become one of the city’s most fun and fashionable bars – brings to the mix the kind of New York energy that has long inspired Lucas.
But it also emulates the elegance of Italy’s north. Namely, Venice. “To me,” Lucas says, “a Venetian experience is about … a special sort of allure.”
After dark, from the Flinders Lane entrance, the restaurant has a pulsating glow, as warmth emanates from the Naples-imported wood oven. Inside, you’re struck first by a commanding, curvaceous slab of white marble formed into a one hell of a bar – all 14 metres of it. Gleaming silver table lamps, with concertina shades, radiate moody light throughout the room (Lucas, a stickler for the details, buffs fingerprints off the one nearest him during Broadsheet’s visit). And royal blue is everywhere – the sconces, the studded leather chairs with slick polished arms, the plush banquettes beckoning to be slinked into and then not out of for at least a couple of hours.
“Venice during winter is a cold place,” Lucas says. “Restaurants there have been designed in a clubby, warm way… That Italian classicism, that ‘clubbiness’ that uses beautiful timbers and soft lighting and beautiful marbles.” Here, all that and more – designed in collaboration with Samantha Eades (Chin Chin, Carlton Wine Room).
It’s not a “club” per se, but it’s that intimate extravagance Lucas wants to replicate in Melbourne. Cosy but effortlessly classy. Grand but charming. A place in which, despite the vast, high-ceilinged dining room, yours feels like the only table.
Waiters are buttoned up in crisp white jackets – “GA”, for Grill Americano, is sewn into the breast pocket – and their seamless tableside theatrics add to the lavishness.
Hunks of Parmigiano-Reggiano, an unexpectedly essential starter, are drizzled with rich, amber chestnut honey from Italy’s Piedmont region. A glug of luscious olive oil is the final touch on a Josper-grilled bistecca or bottarga taglioni or scampi-for-two atop saffron pilaf. And decadent tiramisu is scooped straight from an oval-shaped glass dish onto your plate. (An Italian restaurant is measured by its tiramisu, Lucas says.)
The menu’s centrepiece, though, is the “from the grill” section – and its bistecca alla Fiorentina. A star of Tuscan cuisine, here it comes in the form of a thick-cut, 1.2-kilogram T-bone done over charcoal and doused in sea salt and rosemary.
Influence doesn’t start and end in Italy, though. Lucas grew up on mixed grills, the Australian pub staple. The grigliata mista is Grill Americano’s nostalgic but beautified ode to them. Alongside the rudimentary steak, there’s salty-sweet maple bacon, a pork-and-fennel sausage that is, quite honestly, one of the best we’ve ever eaten, and French cutlets that demand your cutlery be abandoned.
Sure, the meat is the star, but the sides in its orbit are no less impressive. There’s green-olive-spiked butter to slather on potato focaccia, prosciutto is baked into the molten mac’n’cheese, and the parmesan-crusted onion rings are out of this world.
Sophisticated chicchetti (small savoury snacks) and silky handmade pastas round out the A3 menu, suitably sized – and varied – for a restaurant of such lofty ambitions.
Dessert, too, is triumphant, by gun chef Michaela Kang. The aforementioned tiramisu is an extra-textural feat; hidden within is a wafer-thin layer of chocolate that cracks upon serving. For the majestic vanilla-meringue cake, a stacks-on of melt-in-your-mouth sponge and vanilla custard is encased by spikey, flamed meringue. It channels the one served at Venice’s legendary Harry’s Bar – a hangout where Ernest Hemingway had his own table, and the Bellini was born – an inspiration Lucas refers to regularly while explaining Grill Americano’s origin story. (The white linen napkins on each table at Grill, in fact, are more than an homage to Harry’s – they’re made by the same manufacturer.)
At Harry’s, as at Grill Americano, the bar is more than just a place to perch. “A bar is what sets a restaurant apart,” says Lucas, “the gel that brings a restaurant together.
“I wanted the bar culture of New York and to marry it with the beauty of a Venetian bar.” Open for walk-ins whenever the restaurant is, it’s as much a spot for a solo lunchtime minute steak, or for lingering long after dessert, as it is for a cocktail. The leather bar stools – more like seats – have been designed with lengthy stays in mind. And Lucas hand-picked the marble himself, adamant that the final product be curved – a request that paid off.
Helmed by Loic Avril (ex-Fat Duck, Dinner by Heston) and Joseph Demoz (ex-Tedesca), they serve a tight edit of quintessentially Italian cocktails, colouring slightly outside the lines with each. The namesake Americano, for example, uses cacao-nib vermouth, mandarin soda and Campari, and comes alongside a chocolate-dipped mandarin segment. The house spritz is all about cherries – it’s crowned with three glistening maraschinos. And the Bellini uses fresh white-peach puree made in-house. Meanwhile, the wine cellar holds an impressive 2000 bottles.
“Grill Americano is about reimagining the classics and adding a sense of modern sexiness,” Lucas sums up. “Is there anything more sexy than a white marble bar, a beautiful pizza oven – coals burning in the background – and waiters running around in classic white jackets serving beautiful wine?”
112 Flinders Lane, Melbourne
(03) 8616 8010
Tue & Wed 5pm–late
Thu & Fri 12pm–late