Peoples Cafeteria, the newest project from team North Street Store, has more than a whiff of Sizzler, Miss Maud’s and Pizza Hut all you can eat to it. And I mean that in the very best way.
In some instances, it’s the food, such as a crisp salad of lettuce, cucumber, tomato and capsicum (undressed – guests are free to add vinaigrette how they see fit), or a vivid jumble of grated beetroot and carrot matchsticks. (Admittedly the latter is from the Margaret Fulton school of cookery, but it wouldn’t look out of place in any ’90s-era self-serve salad bar). In some cases, this connection is literal. Lachlan Bisset, co-owner of Peoples Cafeteria along with fellow Do a Dinner director Craig Stewart, is almost certain the second-hand refrigerated buffet he bought at an auction came from Miss Maud’s, the home of one of Perth’s most famous smorgasbords. In other words: for those that love Bisset and Stewart’s brand of nostalgic, unembellished deliciousness, Peoples Cafeteria is likely to make you very happy.
“There’s nothing cheffy about this,” Bisset tells Broadsheet.
While the cooking has little in the way of frou-frou embellishments, dishes are cooked with care. The chickpeas in the chickpea salad are kabulis from Ord River, a plump legume that Frank Camorra from Melbourne’s MoVida once told me was the best chickpea he’d eaten. The tightly wound cabbage rolls stuffed with toasted buckwheat and mushroom and dressed in a tomato sauce are a rousing endorsement for vegan food. The roast chicken consists of Marylands that have been taken off the hip bone, seasoned like the supermarket rotisserie chooks of the’90s, and cooked in a charcoal-burning tandoor till tender and smoky. Make no mistake: this is unapologetic home cooking with a view towards nutrition as well as taste. (The kitchen, says Bisset, is a no-deep-fryer, no-junk-food zone).
“It’s like Western cooking but not Mediterranean, and with an emphasis on healthy foods and serving a complete offering,” says Bisset. “You can come and you can get some meat and salad for lunch that’s not a composed salad or a pub side salad, but actually – you know – a combination of raw fresh fermented vegetables, cooked vegetables, grains, lentils, pulses. This is a place where you eat from the [food] pyramid and prioritise proper nutrition.”
There’s nothing cheffy about the dining room, either. It’s a former Chinese restaurant that’s been left pretty much as-is save for the addition of some new art on the walls. BYO-everything is the name of the game and guests help themselves to their own glassware and cutlery. The Geocities-esque quality of the cafeteria’s website is also likely to upset web designers. For those not dining in, a takeaway deli carries a selection of North Street Store breads, baked goods and merch. As to prices, Bisset and Stewart are still fine-tuning how the buffet-style service will work but are exploring using a thali-based pricing system, or a flat price per plate.
In an era of Instagram cooking and plating, the look of the space and the relative simplicity of the cooking may be confusing – even jarring – to some. I’ve had food writer friends privately lament the way that homestyle food in restaurants is worsening the erosion of home cooking skills. They may have points, but for those that don’t have the time, know-how or facilities to fix this kind of cooking at home, the Peoples Cafeteria model of serving nutritious, well-priced food (Bisset: “I don’t know anywhere in Northbridge where you can get a full plate of healthy food for $17.”) in a fun, zero-pretence setting feels like a food trend we can get behind.
“The whole Do a Dinner company [Stewart and Bisset’s business] exists to shape a world where people eat better,” Stewart and Bisset told Broadsheet last month. Bingo.