In 1972 an art teacher from Ballarat College set his eyes on disused stables behind the old British Queen Hotel in Bridge Street.
The stables were already over 100 years old. They hadn’t seen horses or carriages for decades. Instead, the teacher’s students came down from college to paint the interiors.
The teacher, Murray Dyer, and his wife Joy had other ideas for the building. They were going to follow a pleasurable dream and open a steak restaurant.
At the time there were very few, if any, standalone restaurants in Ballarat, which was somewhat of a cultural backwater. Cafes served toasted sandwiches; pubs served beer. The last Chinese ‘cookhouse’, John Alloo’s at Bakery Hill, was long gone. Liquor licences were restricted to hotels, and were guarded to the point of violence. The Eureka Bistro in Sturt Street was an anomaly, new to residents. To open a restaurant was the height of financial and culinary risk.
Forty-six years later, Dyer’s Steak Stable was still in family hands, still open and still serving the food it is renowned for.
But all that is about to change. The Dyer family have decided almost half a century in the restaurant business is enough. Dyer’s Steak Stable has been sold.
The 1970s – a time of change
The early 1970s gave an aggressive Australian nationalism full flower, in all its positive and negative qualities.
Men discarded their hats, grew their hair. Moustaches began to return in a way not seen since the 1890s. The Australian cricket side led by example: Dennis Lillee, Rodney Marsh and captain Ian Chappell all sported the upper lip growth and a tough, take-no-prisoners approach the the game.
Women’s fashion saw shorter skirts, longer skirts, flared trousers and brighter poly colours. Magazines like Cleo and Cosmopolitan promoted the work of Germaine Greer and Anne Summers in arguing for women’s rights.
In increase in migration saw changes in what we ate, and drank. Restaurants began to reflect a broadening cultural diversity. Italian food; Vietnamese, Hungarian,
The wine industry came into its own, with the reputation of Penfold’s Grange Hermitage leading the way, and the rise of the Hunter Valley, Margaret River, Yarra Valley and Adelaide Hills alongside the Barossa and Coonawarra.
Food began to become cheaper and more varied. We began to learn words like casserole, goulash, mousse, ricotta, parmesan, coq au vin, bourguignon. Cuts of meat like cutlets and rib roasts replaced stews and chops.
We saw the rise of the steak restaurant, from the lower end of the rather awful Black Stump chain (‘We’re famous for our steaks!) to the likes of Vlados (established 1964) and Lazar’s in Fitzroy.
Murray Dyer was following hot on their tails. Often in his Maserati.
All in the family
Sitting in the former stable, now venerated shrine of the Ballarat food scene, Murray and Joy’s son and current restaurateur Campbell and his niece Ruby Graovac explain that the original iron horse-hitching points remain in the building.
“The hay loft is still upstairs,” say Campbell. Dyer’s Hayloft was reserved for special functions and bookings. It had two telephones to call down to the main restaurant: a red phone for drinks to be brought up, a black phone to order food.
“They just loved the building, the idea of the building,” Campbell Dyer says.
“They didn’t have any restaurant skills between them; none at all, I think. Joy worked at Myer when she was younger. They had four kids between them when they were pretty young, so a restaurant was a big thing to take on.”
But the Dyers were excellent hosts, and they knew wine. Soon a regular clientele was enjoying the porterhouse with mushroom or bearnaise sauce, the T-bone or the marinated rump, matched with a Wynns burgundy or a Great Western claret.
“When my parents started I was six,” says Campbell. The whole family had to pitch in, whether it was after school or when they were at university.
“I haven’t really known much else. When I was 14 or 15 I just washed dishes on Saturdays. You start out the back, and you see and learn every facet of the business, if you’re serious about it. Actually a dishwasher is a really important job.”
The Dyers always employed chefs, Murray’s dictum being stick to what you know, which in his case was front-of-house and the wine list. Campbell Dyer is the same, believing his skills are better in front of the kitchen pass. He’s employed two chefs.
“Murray would step into the kitchen from time to time – or that’s what he claimed,” says Campbell.
“Chefs do come and go… it’s funny. The chefs are celebrities in this day and age, but back then the restaurateurs were the main focus.”
Ruby says she thinks Joy and Murray met in Ballarat, as Joy had been a boarder at Clarendon Presbyterian Ladies' College. Like Campbell, she’s put her hours into the business.
“When I was 15, I started washing dishes and at 16 I was waitressing,” says Ruby.
“I did a few stints while I was at uni (Graovac is a lawyer), and I was here for a little while full-time as well. One of my best friends worked here too. Campbell has lots of nieces and nephews; most of them have done some time in the restaurant.”
“Some of them better than others,” adds Campbell drily.
An immovable feast – and Maseratis
While the restaurant may be changing hands, one thing that has withstood the test of time and taste is the menu. There’s an original 1972 menu in Campbell’s archives. It’s almost the same as what is served today. Except in 1972 it would cost around $2 for a good steak. It’s a lot more today.
“That was pretty good value,” Campbell says.
There was no real reason to change the menu. Steak is steak; the way you cook it doesn’t really alter very much.
“And we really did stick to that rule, which is I think why we’ve been successful,” he says.
Choosing the best meat is paramount. The restaurant has always used a Melbourne butcher, and sourced a beef called Waubra Prime from Sinclairs in Ballarat. Murray would often go out to look at the cattle selected for his steaks driving his Maserati sports car, says Campbell.
He pulls out a picture of Murray, resplendent in sports jacket, standing at the door of the Italian speedster while a herd of curious Hereford examine it.
“I wish we still had that car. It’d be worth a bit now. He loved them.”
Glancing through the menus he’s saved, there are some changes – apart from the 40c martinis and the $2.00 bottles of wine.
Those wines… hock, moselle, claret, chablis, champagne, burgundy. Appellations for French wines that have long since disappeared.
Henry Bolte and the regular set
“Henry Bolte used to come here a fair bit, before my time,” Campbell recalls.
“He liked a scotch and cigarette; he loved his cigarettes. He certainly enjoyed his food and wine. I’m not sure how regular he was, but I always remember my father saying he was a good customer. Parliamentarians used to seem to like coming here. We’ve been here so long, you don’t really remember every person.
He doesn’t remember any really famous people being in his restaurant – at least any he’ll admit to.
“I don’t really think about celebrities as such. Maybe we should have had one of those walls with pictures all over it. We’ve been here so long... it was based on locals and regulars. We never did much marketing. You had to find it yourself. I think people really like that.
“Being in an alley like this now in Melbourne, it’s quite cool. I wouldn’t say we set the template, it might have been an accident. And some good management. We might be in the wrong part of town now. The food’s shifted up to Armstrong Street.
“But then, once people are in our door it becomes irrelevant. We’ve never felt the need to change the atmosphere; it works. Restaurants tend to reinvent themselves every four or five years nowadays. We’ve been lucky in that respect.”