“I’m Italian, so I feel very at home in Carlton,” says Gino Forlano, co-owner of Thirty Eight Chairs. “So many people who live here came from Italy, or their parents did. To open a restaurant here is a dream.”
Forlano opened his second Thirty Eight Chairs on Rathdowne Street last month, inside what was the Paragon Cafe – a spot that has been burdened with bad luck. Previously linked to underworld figure Mick Gatto, the Paragon made headlines in 2014 when a man drove a stolen ute through the front windows, and again after a fire in 2015. But taking on the unlucky site was, Forlano says, “just part of the challenge.”
“It’s one of the best buildings on one of the best streets in Melbourne,” he says. “I’m not excited by Lygon Street – too many old-school operators doing the same thing – but there’s something magical about Rathdowne Street.”
Structurally, the restaurant is relatively unchanged. The tables and chairs are new, the floor’s been polished, there’s a new function space upstairs, and a tall marble bar installed where the counter used to be.
Since Thirty Eight Chairs moved in, it’s almost always busy. Forlano has even noticed some of his South Yarra regulars making the trek across. “I feel very proud to have the power to move people across the river,” he says, laughing.
In true Italian fashion, the menu is a simple affair. The focus is on house-made pasta, cooked soft; antipasti and desserts. The wine list is also super simple – a couple by the bottle, and four wines by TAP. on tap, including a prosecco.
It does breakfast Wednesday to Sundays, too, with a European-style offering. House-made pastries, Nutella bomboloni, and piadine (sort of like a rolled pizza) stuffed with prosciutto, mozzarella and rocket; or eggplant, smoked scamorza and Napoli sauce. Other dishes include a mixed-seafood omelette.
“There’s definitely a difference between the suburbs,” says Forlano, “but to see the same happiness from people eating, we feel very honoured. This is our life, and we really believe in what we are doing.”
Thirty Eight Chairs
651 Rathdowne Street, Carlton North
(03) 8383 4113
Mon & Tue 5pm – 10pm
Wed to Sat 9am – 10pm
Sun 9am – 4pm