In the suburban wasteland of my youth, the scorching sun bleached dog poo to a whiter shade of pale on bitumen of black lava and mournful sounds of punters losing their crumpled notes at the nearby racecourse wafted pointlessly across west-facing shopfronts with half closed blinds, as if the windows’ eyes were cast downward in shame.
Amidst this soulless, stultifying stillness stood the preposterous oasis that was the Grotta Capri restaurant.
I hated growing up in Kensington as passionately as I loved the Grotta Capri, often wondering how a suburb as unprepossessing as mine could be worthy of such grandeur. It was as if a meteorite with a Rococo pop sensibility had crash landed on Planet Banality; a folly of shell-studded stalactites, fish tanks, Tyrrhenian trompe l’oeil awash with blue light and, in its early days at least, waterways complete with sound effects running beneath illuminated Perspex underfoot.
That it was a restaurant was largely peripheral to proceedings. The plastic sleeve was the tastiest thing on the menu and most of what got served up looked like crumbed cocker spaniel anyway.
Of far greater note were the cocktails. For reasons which remained unclear, there was an over-reliance on Advocaat in most of the recipes, making for a frothy tipple that just about scrambled itself on the way down. Quite handy then that the accompanying mermaid and dolphin-themed plastic swizzle sticks, glowing like uranium under the black light, could be used to fish out the coagulated egg swinging from your epiglottis like Miley Cyrus.
If that didn’t make for enough high weirdness, the tables were occupied by SP bookies with bad rugs and polyester slacks that crackled with static, accompanied by their dubious, er, business associates from the neighbouring racetrack – the sort of people who put the ‘colourful’ into ‘racing identity’.
The Grotta Capri played host to both the famous and infamous, featured in the Australian film favourite Muriel’s Wedding and television series Underbelly, and it was with utter delight that as an adult I also got to accompany Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds for dinner when they were on tour, not so much for the name-dropportunity but to witness how comprehensively perplexed and uncomfortable they appeared to be amongst all that hideous fabulousness.
I shed a salty tear or two in 2010 when the Grotta Capri closed after 60 years. While Giovanni Battista’s ode to the life aquatic might have been made out of chicken wire and cement, it played a distinguished role for me in nourishing the vivid imagination of a small child in what was otherwise a vapid suburban commuter belt of antimatter.
I’m just sorry Douglas Adams never made it to the Grotta Capri because if nothing else, its Advocaat-crash cocktails would have given the Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster a run for its money any old day.
(Ps. So long and thanks for all the Fishermen’s Baskets)