The real charm of a great Parisian bistro is its function as a living room for the neighbourhood, day and night. A place where locals can eat, drink, celebrate, catch up or simply sit quietly and take in the day.
For a city that's often described as "European", it's somewhat surprising that Melbourne's south side has so few places like it, and so few that take full advantage of the area's leafy surrounds. The latest entry on Domain Road’s increasingly interesting dining strip, Gilson uses the classic Paris institution as its jumping-off point. Open from 6am, seven days a week, the restaurant works as well for a first date as it does for a meal with your parents, a beer with a mate, a quiet solo breakfast or a loud one with friends.
Small tables dot the footpath out front, with the restaurant proper separated from passers-by courtesy of a covered terrace for looking onto the Botanic Gardens, aperitivo in hand. Walk through the doors and you’re struck by the warmth of the space, from the pink clay floors to the wood-fired oven, which meets your eye from the other end of the room.
Gilson is McBride's first foray into dining at both ends of the day. Emma Jeffrey, who led the kitchen at Mammoth, is now executive chef across McBride's venues, with Pippa McLeod leading the Gilson kitchen. And where the concept may seem familiar, McBride feels the restaurant is something truly different for Melbourne.
“If it evolves, if it commits to seasonality, then classic bistro food can be vital,” he says. “We might be changing the menu daily at Gilson, but this type of food has existed for 100 years, and will continue to exist for 100 more.”
Here lies the key to McBride’s ambitions. Chia puddings and grain bowls have a place, but the menu is not all about hitting current trends. Gilson’s three salads include a classic nicoise and a caesar. There’s beef tartare with oyster cream, and larger plates revolve around pasta, whole fish (currently barramundi with fennel and salsa verde), a steak, and something to make use of the oven, say, this week’s wood-fired chicken with jus gras.
The pizza menu is six strong and reflects McBride’s commitment to seasonality – think shaved asparagus with stracciatella, sunny-side-up egg and sea salt. And confit cherry tomato with fresh burrata and basil.
Bartender Julian Brown. a former beverage manager at London’s Milk & Honey, has created a cocktail and aperitivo list that will change with the seasons. When coupled with the terrace, the list will see Gilson become as much a destination for a drink as it will for a meal. "Bringing cocktail-bar standards to a restaurant is something I'm really excited about," says McBride. "We're putting as much thought into the drinks, from the coffee to the wine, as we are to the food."
The design, by Projects of Imagination, completes the day-to-night vision. Each element acknowledges the venue’s French roots and complements the surrounding environment. “We wanted to pay homage to the Botanic Gardens,” says designer Dion Hall, nodding towards the riot of green across the road. “The colour palette is part of that formula, which removes green from the interior to draw your focus to it in the streetline.”
With a takeaway menu that includes Pidapipo by the scoop and a florist on the terrace through weekends, there’s plenty to draw people out of the gardens.
For a time, the best thing about Domain Road was what lay on the other side of it. But with the Botanical, Bacash, Baker D. Chirico, Entrecote and soon Scott Pickett’s new grill steadily adding to the street’s appeal, Gilson may prove the tipping point that again turns Domain into a destination in its own right.
171 Domain Road, South Yarra
(03) 9866 3120
Broadsheet director Nick Shelton is a partner in the Domain Botanical Group, an investor in Gilson.