In the first few weeks of Tolarno’s re-opening, an elderly woman walked into the Fitzroy Street diner. “This is the first restaurant I visited when I migrated here from Poland in the ’60s,” she told co-owner John Isherwood.
“That’s just one of the many stories we’ve heard since opening Tolarno back up,” he says. “Some had been proposed to here, others had birthday parties that will go down in history. You can tell there is so much love for this place, and that’s why we took it over. We’re trying to make it a neighbourhood eating house, like it was back in the day.”
“We” is Isherwood and business partner Lachie McKenzie-McHarg, who aptly met on Fitzroy Street at Day of the Dead.
Backtrack to 1966. French-born Australian artist Mirka Mora and her now ex-husband Georges, who escaped the Holocaust and migrated to Australia in 1951, opened Tolarno in St Kilda. It was a perpetually packed French bistro, with Pietro Grossi – father to Guy – running the kitchen in the 1970s.
Mora filled every inch of wall space with her whimsical, colourful illustrations, inspired by her own heritage and her three children.
Leon and Vivienne Massoni bought the restaurant from the Moras in the ’70s. Iain Hewitson and Ruth Allen ran it for 15 years until 2006 (they were married there, too). Guy Grossi took over in 2007, after having worked in its kitchen years ago with his father. He closed the restaurant in 2015; the nearby Gatwick Hotel was already causing problems for neighbouring businesses.
Under Isherwood and McKenzie-McHarg, Tolarno will be a restaurant for locals. There are trivia nights each Wednesday, and a pianola people can hop on and play. A street-facing bar has board games and books.
The menu by ex-Chez Dré Chef Sam Parslow begins with small plates of porcini arancini with funghi ketchup and truffle salt; kingfish ceviche cured in passionfruit with papaya and baby fennel; and jerk-spiced chicken ribs with a pomegranate and black garlic marinade.
Larger dishes include lamb rack and pan-fried gnocchi. The pair has put a burger on the menu after endless customer requests for the restoration of one Tolarno’s former signature dishes – it comes with jack cheese, bacon jam, tomato and pickles.
42 Fitzroy Street, St Kilda
(03) 9042 8573
Wed to Thurs 4pm–12am
Sat & Sun 7.30am–11am