Since moving home to Australia, I have heard more than one story about souvlaki-inspired fistfights. My brother tells of drunk people in the street punching one-handed while holding their pita-wrapped meat protectively behind them. My sister claims to have seen a brawl in a Fitzroy cocktail bar that was prompted by a disagreement over the comparative quality of two dueling neighborhood souvlaki shops. There’s a lot of passion in this country when it comes to Greek food.
The oft-quoted factoid that there are more Greeks in Melbourne than any other city in the world outside Greece is somewhat debatable. It depends on what you mean by “Greeks,” what you mean by “city,” and which statistics you trust. According to census numbers, the New York metropolitan area has a higher number of self-identified Greeks than Melbourne, but that area includes giant hunks of Connecticut, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, as well as all of Long Island and most of the Hudson Valley.
The first Greeks came to Australia in the early 19th century, but the majority arrived here between the end of World War II and the 1970s — and most came to Victoria. Melbourne is the epicenter of the Australian Greek community, but that community extends across the country and into major aspects of our culinary lives. When my family moved from Melbourne to the United States in the early 1990s, we quickly came to the conclusion that the main difference in the two nations’ cooking was our prodigious use of lemon juice and olive oil.
It didn’t occur to me then that this Australian style was actually Greek influence, passed over fences by neighbors, sold at the many Greek-owned greengrocers and picked up at neighborhood restaurants. Australia has a climate especially well-suited to the basic building blocks of Mediterranean cooking, and the backyards of Melbourne overflow with lemon trees and rosemary bushes.
When I was a kid, our next-door neighbors in Northcote spoke Greek, made their own olive oil and grew their own wine grapes on a trestle in their backyard. When there was extra, they shared.
These days, that influence can be seen even in the most basic parts of Australia’s dining culture. Chain restaurants offer halloumi burgers. Supermarket isles stock tubs of Greek dips. When it comes to restaurants, this pervasiveness makes for a richer, more exciting Greek-diaspora dining scene — from street food to home-style cooking to tasting menus — than any I’ve come across in America and beyond.
The gyro and souvlaki have long been Melbourne’s preferred drunk food or quick lunch or cheap dinner. Served from trucks, at fast-food mall stalls, and out of simple family-owned storefronts, the souvlaki — along with its Middle Eastern cousin, the kebab — is almost as pervasive as the meat pie, and people’s allegiances are enough to inspire great debate.
Just as America has its upscale hamburgers, Australia has quite a few fine-dining takes on the souvlaki. The Sydney restaurant 1821 is a large, impressive place with a bright white plaster wall cut away in the shape of the Greek flag — a flag wrought in exposed bricks. Along with modern versions of classic Greek dishes, the chef David Tsirekas serves a kalamaki, described as a mini-souvlaki: fire-cooked pork on skewers with a swoosh of mayonnaise and an herbed tomato salad. (There’s also a pork belly baklava. I was not brave enough.)
In Melbourne, George Calombaris has built a mini-empire devoted to high-end Greek food, including Gazi, where he serves a variety of fancified souvlakis, including a soft-shell-crab version. Mr. Calombaris is best known for his role as a judge on the insanely popular TV show MasterChef, but his reputation was built at the Press Club.
That restaurant moved in 2013 to a different space (still within the Herald Sun building) where its intimate dining room resembles a luxe disco insect hive, with curved cream leather booths and a ceiling of brass podlike ornamentation. The tasting menu served here, which runs from $125 to $170 per person, is as artfully plated and elegant as any fine-dining meal, and it is emphatically Greek.
The signature dish is taramasalata, the cured cod roe dip that is ubiquitous in Australia. Taramasalata can be aggressively pink and fishy, but at the Press Club it is mild and creamy (in texture and color), topped with fat trout roe and served with loukoumades — Greek doughnuts. Usually drizzled with syrup and nuts, the round dough puffs here are instead spiked with salt and vinegar, and act as tangy, airy vehicles for scooping up the dip.
Across town at Elyros in Camberwell, the chef Jarrod Smith serves food specific to Crete, alongside a wonderful list of Cretan wines and cocktails made with Greek liquors. There are little square Cretan pies called kalitsounia, with impossibly light crisp exteriors and a filling of fluffy sheep and goat cheese. On Sundays there’s a lunchtime feast option, usually anchored by a hulking shoulder of slow-cooked lamb made with whole onions and oregano. If you’re lucky, the meal will end with the owner, Angie Giannakodakis, reading your fortune in the coffee grounds at the bottom of your cup.
The best Greek food I’ve had in Australia is not in Melbourne, but at Hellenika in Gold Coast, Queensland. The eight-year-old restaurant takes an unusual decorative approach to declaring its country of influence: The dining room is adorned with large Pop art portraits of Greek-descended celebrities. This means John Stamos and Zach Galifianakis will oversee your meal, the blue background of the paintings contrasting with the stark white walls for a look that is wholly modern but nods to the color scheme of the Greek flag.
The menu is a list of classics, but done so well and with such quality ingredients that the food tastes new again: giant grilled prawns with lemon and pepper; stunningly fresh fish; dolmades made with veal, wrapped in Swiss chard and paired with a gloriously rich tzatziki. Recently, the restaurant debuted a rooftop bar with a Miami Beach vibe (and more of those portraits), and the owner Simon Gloftis has announced that an outpost of Hellenika will open in Brisbane.
The old-school family restaurant is alive and well, too. At Jim’s Greek Tavern in Melbourne, there are no menus, just a glass case with various meats and seafood on display. Ordering is a negotiation with one of the seasoned waiters, who will arrive at your table and bark, “What do you want?”
You want dips, and squeaky saganaki, and lamb cutlets, and whatever fish your waiter decides to bring. It will all be cooked simply, with olive oil and lemon. It feels as familiar and convivial as a friend’s living room.
No matter how you parse those debated demographics, Greeks make up a higher percentage of the Australian population than they do in the United States, or any country outside Greece, other than Cyprus. But our wealth of high-quality Hellenic cooking is thanks to more than population density.
There’s some sort of alchemy that happened when the tastes of Greek immigrants met the climate, produce and seafood of Australia, and that magic continues to flourish. We are right to be passionate about it, though I cannot condone souvlaki boxing.
1821; 122 Pitt Street, Sydney, New South Wales; 02 8080 7070; 1821.com.au
The Press Club; 72 Flinders Street, Melbourne, Victoria; 03 9677 9677; thepressclub.com.au
Elyros; 871 Burke Road, Camberwell, Victoria; 03 9882 8877; elyros.com.au
Hellenika; 2235 Gold Coast Highway, Nobby Beach, Queensland; 07 5572 8009; hellenika.com.au
Jim’s Greek Tavern; 32 Johnston Street, Collingwood, Victoria; 03 9419 3827