IMAGES DARRIAN TRAYNOR
This joint is rocking. Or is it the motion of the Gertrude Street trams at eye height creating motion sickness?
Nope. It’s the interconnected seats – recycled Coles cafeteria booths, all curved, golden timber and metal frames – that sway with the movement of fellow diners.
Once you get used to it, it’s quite pleasant; makes the place feel even more like a 1930s American diner on the side of the highway.
Not that Belle’s – for all its attention to detail and authenticity, its spotless windows and glossy white and stainless-steel counter – even comes close to the tacky joints of the pre-World War II era that inspired its owners. Yes, there’s a ponytailed waitress with big earrings, and I can see a milkshake being made, but this is a damn modern take on a diner.
Owner Reno Pontonio, a former hairdresser with a share of the Mamasita action, says Belle’s feels like his first restaurant. His founding partner, Bridget Absalom-Wong, has moved on. In the months since it opened there’s been tweaking, and there is still some “shifting of the lines” to be done, but essentially the American classics concept will remain.
Chef Catriona Freeman (The Grace Darling Hotel, Panama Dining Room) spent time in New York and has been given a loose brief that she’s interpreted with style; the owner and his chef are keen to ensure Belle’s doesn’t become known as “just a burger joint” and plan to extend the “fresher” side of the menu.
To wit, crispy fish croquettes are five golden balls of savoury, fleshy goodness, crunchy but not oily and, with herb enhancement, more refined than original diner fare. They are served with a side of lemon caper mayonnaise, but the lemon wedge was dressing enough.
Predictable sliders? Yes. Options include a passable pulled-pork version with a red cabbage vinegar-coleslaw – the bun’s soft, the meat is tasty enough and the slaw’s fresh, but it’s not a standout. There’s also fried chicken with blue cheese and jalapeno or vego mushroom, rosemary and Persian feta.
The list of mostly Australian wines, beers, ciders and cheeky cocktails dovetails nicely with the food in length and pretension – happily, it’s short on both. Perhaps a Hillbilly pear cider with a crisp, dry finish or an Asahi (there are plans to add more US craft beers to the list and to offer a beer on tap) to accompany Spring Bay mussels: chunks of celery, fennel and Spanish onion hide plump molluscs in glossy shells and an excellent white wine, cream, chilli, garlic, basil and dill broth. The vegetables, pushed aside at first, were enlivened when reimmersed. Generous for $16.
The burgers – three made with wagyu patties – all seem a bit similar to a non-burger fan. There’s a Dinerr burger (a Twin Peaks reference, not a menu typo) with caramelised onion, gherkin and salad, a jalapa burger with caramelised onion, salad and jalapeno mayonnaise. The midnight burger’s thick patty, curls of bacon, fried egg, cheese and lettuce are connected by a long, necessary skewer. It’s moderate in size, but enough, and each of the elements get a tick, particularly the generous hand-moulded serve of meat.
Southern fried chicken sits comfortably in the burger parade. It’s nicely herbed and served with more of that vinegary coleslaw, which astutely cuts through traces of the deep fryer, and a side of classic diner barbecue sauce. Excellent Old Bay-spiced french fries add extra flavours and challenge the seasoning on the chicken for supremacy. Freeman makes the spice mix of celery, paprika, salt, cayenne and about 15 others and it’s become a Belle’s must-try.
The brick chicken was a meal topper: a flattened spatchcock cooked under a brick, with soft spices and a just-right kick of salt to turn its skin to a brittle outer crust. Beneath the moist, excellent flesh of the chook was a tangle of buttery, still-crisp kale, green beans and charred, roasted cauliflower that burger lovers might never discover.
It indicated the fresh, non-diner direction this chef might like to take.
Desserts are rattled off by the pleasant, brisk staff: pecan pie, a cherry pie, peanut butter cheesecake (no thanks). Our rocky road sundae was an excellent call: topped with roasted almonds and scoops of vanilla ice-cream, it was dominated by fine cranberry-filled chocolate mousse and chunks of chopped marshmallow. It was a big enough sugar hit for two, and enough to make us want to really get moving. Eat this BELLE’S DINER,
150 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy Cuisine
American classics Chef
Catriona Freeman Prices
Appetisers $4.50-$16.50; mains $13-$25; desserts $10 Open
Daily 11am to late Owner
Reno Pontonio Phone
9077 0788 The Verdict
Worth a look www.bellesdiner.com.au
Curved timber ceiling panels and vintage seating booths are just some of the features that give this slick new operation its NYC-in-the-1930s vibe. The Broadway-style neon-lit appellation and the stools that line up along the stainless-steel bar shout the message loud too but, thankfully, the décor at Belle’s isn’t dripping with tacky Americana. Tramcar-style windows line up with passing Gertrude Street trams, creating a sense of movement. Retro lighting, glossy tiles and metal cutlery boxes stick to the theme, as does the attire of the ponytailed, apron-clad waitress. Service is speedy and families are welcome.