My father was the Cunnamulla butcher. He told me he won the shop in a card game. But that wasn’t true.
Some of my earliest memories are of that massive room with its wide doorway, soaring ceiling and people bustling past one another. To a six-year-old, this simple butcher’s shop, with its shiny white tiles and imposing bulk, was a monument to masculinity and commerce akin to the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus – albeit in dusty, far-west Queensland.
Almost four decades later, 10,000 miles north and I’m walking the streets of New York’s Lower East Side looking for the pivotal crossroads of Rivington and Ludlow Streets, made famous by the cover of my favourite Beastie Boys album Paul’s Boutique.
And that’s when I first stumble upon – and eventually out of – Schiller’s Liquor Bar at 131 Rivington Street. Once a modest drugstore, it is now a European fin de siècle styled brasserie with all the classic European hallmarks: the smoky mirrors, the brass rails, the ubiquitous bentwood stools and, of course, the tiles. Ah, the tiles. White subway tiles as far as the eye can see. It's a geometrical wunderkammer.
Now maybe I’m drawing a long bow here, but I find the configurations of Schiller’s reminiscent of Viennese Succession design as witnessed by anyone who attended the National Gallery of Victoria’s Vienna: Art & Design exhibition last year. Consider the drawings of Otto Wagner with the systems of contiguous, merging walls and striking lines forging the way for Art Deco.
The strong Australian dollar has a lot to answer for. Look at the proliferation of all things USA making their way into the Melbourne dining scene in the last 18 months. What we’re seeing is more Australians visiting the US and returning home with snapshots filled with as many memories of Central Park and Times Square as they are with classic New York diners and their menus of po' boys, sliders and Ruebens. Another burger anyone? Don’t get me wrong, I think this is a good thing. With particular focus on the newest cafes and bars in Melbourne, there is a fresh approach to interiors with some art deco impressions. The result is a welcome move to walking into brightly lit, colourful rooms where sleek can also prove comfortable.
Rita's Cafeteria in Abbotsford, Melbourne presents the quintessential New York diner, complete with elevated train tracks stretching overhead. With classic venetian blinds across the facade, art deco typeface and nighthawks sitting up at the bar inside, you could easily imagine you'd woken up in a Raymond Chandler novel.
Another stylish yet modern example of this New York take is Gramercy Bistro in South Yarra – its stark white tiles contrasted with splashes of colour, free-flowing space and enough geometrical shapes to make a mathematical child prodigy's head explode.
In Sydney, we can also see this trend playing out at places like the Sydney Theatre Company’s Bar at The End of The Wharf, with the tiles behind the long bar and the neon signage beckoning its presence. Like Schiller’s, it’s an open space, warm and inviting, but one that never overplays its elements or resorts to austerity in a bid to play up the setting. There’s a thoughtful casualness embedded in the design and it never allows the acreage of harbour views to go to waste.
Chiswick in Woollahra offers another example of this American sensibility. Though here this hybrid of old and new comes with more of a Hamptons glo – a country garden merged seamlessly with a pavilion and lavished with the latest in knick-knackery and decidedly retro details.
Even Merivale are doing it with more of those iconic white tiles; they’re all over the walls in the restaurant group’s newest underground bar Palmer & Co.
Now, of course, tiles have been a major part of Australian interior design for over a century, especially in the context of the hotel. While tiles were an important feature in keeping the room at a reasonably cool temperature, I’ve heard that they were also used because they were easy-to-clean back in the days of the six o’clock swill and its inevitable aftermath of the hour-long speed-drinking session.
But a lot has changed since then. We are, of course, much more sophisticated. We've all been watching Mad Men after all.
And back in New York, I’m standing on that corner, looking up at that stencilled neon sign, standing on those iconic floor tiles that let you know you can get a drink inside at the bar, surrounded wooden stools and cloudy mirrors, and it feels just right, like a casual neighbourhood restaurant should.
So next time you're lost in the Lower East Side, sweating it out in the middle of a heatwave, trying to find the intersection where the Beastie Boys shot the cover of Paul’s Boutique. Head up Rivington and cool off with an ice-cold beer at Schiller's. You’ll feel right at home.