Handsome Steve’s House of Refreshment isn’t your typical cafe/bar. In fact, to call it a cafe is an injustice because the House of Refreshment, located upstairs at the Abbotsford Convent, is much more.
The place embodies its rather eccentric owner, (handsome) Steve Miller. Pale-coloured walls are plastered with Geelong Cats memorabilia and black and white portraits of Labor politicians (notably Gough Whitlam and Paul Keating), and the wood-panelled bar is a lesson in high kitsch.
Behind the bar you’ll often find Handsome Steve himself, so named by the doctor who delivered him on the day he was born – a date that coincided with Elvis joining the army and cutting off his hair. According to Steve, “That mojo had to go somewhere.” And it did, arriving in a hospital ward in Mt Gambier, “like something from an episode of Doctor Who”.
Co-founder of punk band The Sputniks, later named The Moodists, Handsome Steve remains something of a rebel; he refers to himself as a ‘skip’ and is big on simplicity. It’s this combination of his reputation, attitude and personality that has earned the House of Refreshment something of a cult following.
“I’ve just surrounded myself with things I like and if you were to look inside my brain, this is probably what you’d find in there,” says Steve of his bar.
In his manifesto on the House of Refreshment website, Steve proclaims his love of the “Wog Bar”, an institution still alive in Melbourne’s suburbs today. This type of locale is a place where “men played cards, smoked, watched TV and drank tiny cups of coffee or VB at quarter to nine in the morning”. According to Steve, modern hospitality wasn’t on the menu.
This hospitality Steve speaks of doesn’t refer to the barista who remembers the way you like your coffee or the waiter who greets you and means it; he’s describing the homogenised, stark aloofness that is a feature of many cafes and restaurants today. And while the menu at the House of Refreshment may deny the lactose intolerant soy milk in their coffee – the pin board menu on the bar declares “no soy, no skinny” – there’s nothing lacking in Steve’s friendly approach to his customers. Except if you happen to be a hippy.
“You know what you’re going to get here. It never changes and I think that’s a good thing,” Steve says. “I have kept it as simple as I could – the one sandwich, the one beer – and people seem to like that.”
The one beer is Carlton Draught and, with the boutique beer explosion a feature of the Melbourne bar scene, customers are often affronted by the lack of choice. Steve has a different philosophy. “If you want to pay eight or nine dollars for a beer, go for it. But I believe beer, like cheese, salt and sugar, is a staple and it should be inexpensive.”
His ‘no soy, no skinny’ policy can have the same effect and while it regularly offends or annoys people that doesn’t bother the barman. “I can’t be fucked with all of those options. More than one milk jug will just complicate things,” he says.
Simplicity is the key here. The only sandwich on the menu is a ham and cheese one and though it’s uncomplicated, Steve knows his ingredients. Prosciutto and provolone cheese are served on a crusty white roll with butter and garlic aioli. Add a strong coffee or beer to your order and it could be described as the perfect, albeit simple, lunch. Another drawcard is the pie floater, a throwback to Steve’s South Australian roots. Served in a pool of green pea soup, the meat pie is assembled top-side down and finished with a slash of tomato sauce. In fact, Steve is planning a tomato sauce art prize for the floater.
“You get this beautiful tri-colour when you add the sauce. So I’m thinking of holding a competition sometime this year,” he says.