COURTESY OF PORT PHILLIP CITY COLLECTION
It is 10.30 on a crisp Friday morning and the Monarch Cake Shop is humming. The throaty voice of African diva Cesaria Evora sings in Portuguese from some unseen CD while the shop assistant is out the back marking out slices on the top of the cheesecake with a sharp knife.
Like an old-style restaurateur, the Monarch’s owner, Gideon Markham, oversees the shop from a small corner table. He springs into action at the coffee machine when a council worker in a yellow fluoro vest orders takeaway cappuccino.
Photographer, local activist and mayoral aspirant Serge Thomann is greeted effusively as he sits down at the red laminex table.
The Monarch, at No.103, is one of the famous four cake shops in Acland Street along with Le Bon, the Europa Cake Shop and Acland Street Cake Shop. They are a testament to the street’s rich and diverse history that links it with the European immigrants who came to St Kilda before and after World War II and became such an integral part of the neighbourhood.
There’s a certain charm and nostalgia factor to these cake shops: windows packed with trays of chocolate cakes, vanilla slices, cheesecakes and chocolate kuglehopf. But they are more than chocolate icing, custard and whipped cream.
Visitors to the famous continental cake shops still get a glimpse of Acland Street’s European past. But the street has changed. Gone are the Red Rock Restaurant, the Wielunski milk bar, the Balberyszski bookshop and Black Rose cafe. Chinese restaurants the Fairy Stork and Tientsin have disappeared.
Gideon Markham shows off one of Monarch's array of treats.
The Scheherazade Coffee Lounge, opened in 1958 by Avram and Masha Zeleznikov in the old O’Shea’s milk bar, served eastern European comfort food from old family recipes. The cafe became a haven for immigrants and refugees, a meeting place for swapping stories and gossip, especially for lonely single men, many of whom had lost their entire families in the war. It closed in 2008 moved to North Caulfield but has since closed for good.
The gentrification of St Kilda and the resulting high rents have forced some shop owners out.
“Rents now range from $1000 to $1300 a square metre a year,” says John Spanos, senior associate at TBM Commercial. Spanos, who has been managing property for nearly 25 years in the area, says that the shift has been gradual rather than dramatic but the rent rises have forced out many of the small operators.
The Monarch opened in 1934 and was the first of the cake shops in the street.
“My wife and I used to visit the shop. She loved the plum cake and I loved the brandy snaps,” says Markham, who was born in pre-war Poland. And like the man in the razor commercial they liked it so much they bought the place.
Markham added tables, chairs and coffee to the cake shop five years ago. Framed photos show him with celebrities at the shop, everyone from Ron Barassi to Ben Mendelsohn, Bryan Brown and Ian Thorpe.
Two years ago the Monarch Cake Shop and Acland Street featured in a New York Times story on 36 hours in Melbourne. It has been on lifestyle television shows in California and Munich.
“The street has changed a lot,” says Markham. “The place has become trendy. Once it used to be ethnic, but many of those people have died.”
The vice-president of the Acland Street Traders’ Association, Mark Mariotti, is of Italian descent. He owns 7 Apples Gelato at No.75 and remembers when Acland was a “very vibrant street”.
“It had great cafes, bars ... in the last two or three years, national stores have come in and those shops are under management,” says Mark. “Now the street is just a normal street. It used to be eccentric, but not any more.”
Leon Siapantas, the proprietor of Le Bon at No.93, is of Greek origin. His father came from Istanbul in 1954 and worked at the Monarch before founding Le Bon.
Leon, who has worked at Le Bon since he was 14, laments the passing of the old shops, but acknowledges the streetscape with its outdoor tables and chairs and trees is much better now.
“All the old delis and butchers have gone. We used to have five or six delis. There was a deli where Holy Sheet is now,” Leon says. “Next door was I’m Peckish and then there was Burger’s Deli and a small supermarket where Sportsgirl is now.
“It’s now evolved and the franchise stores have moved in. The local clientele, people who’ve been shopping here for years, are now going to Carlisle Street, Balaclava.”
Leon also recalls how every Sunday from 8am to 1pm orthodox Jews used to gather in the street to talk: “Then in the afternoon the tourists would arrive.”
Acland Street is still a mecca for tourists, both local and overseas. Some like Steve Saunders from Collie in Western Australia and his son Daniel, 14, flew in at 5.30am on the “red eye” flight from Perth for a weekend of football and racing.
National fashion store Sportsgirl arrived in Acland Street in November 2006. The company’s public relations manager, Kate Evans, describes the street as the “perfect backdrop” for the brand.
“It is a great spot in terms of the fact that much of our target market lives in the area,” says Evans.
Dani Madour is the manager of homewares and gift shop Urban Attitude at No.152.
“Acland Street has changed, the culture is changing,” Madour says. “It’s still a local and tourist destination, but all those hard-to-find shops have gone. Carlisle Street Balaclava is how we used to be.”
Gideon Markham is philosophical about the street and the changes that have taken place. He is adamant the cake shops will continue. They are moving with the times. Just look at the cupcake display on a stand in the window. “We’re not going anywhere,” he says.