The best meal you can find in Melbourne is the best meal to be found anywhere: hot chips, eaten at fuck o’clock in the morning, in a desperate, delicious attempt to negate the next morning’s hangover. Crucially, this meal is best eaten outside. If anything, dodging trams and side-stepping whoever just rolled out of the club is integral to this outdoor dining experience.

This is to say Melbourne is well acquainted with eating al fresco, and the state government’s new $87.5 million fund, designed to help more ‘serious’ venues use footpaths and laneways as open-air dining areas, is a promising step towards normality during the COVID-19 crisis.

That’s on top of a $100 million fund just for the CBD, which will include grants to help small and medium businesses “convert spaces like rooftops and courtyards into hospitality zones”.

But not everyone is so enthused by the plan. Taking to The Age’s opinion section on Tuesday, veteran restaurant critic Stephen Downes challenged the announcement, essentially saying that to dine outside is to denigrate a restaurateur’s vision while huffing an exhaust pipe:

Melbourne is not New York, Rome or Paris. Eating outdoors in those cities is performed for performance reasons – you want to be seen to be doing it…

By all means go ahead and consume traffic fumes and try to make yourself heard over the noise of internal combustions…

Serious outdoor eating is not what Melburnians do. We don’t want to “take our cafe culture outdoors”, as you put it. It’s a stupid idea. The money should be better spent.

It’s a spicy take, and one which insinuates that “sophisticated” Melbourne diners would balk at eating fare rendered “cold and corrupted” once taken outside.

Downes does challenge more granular aspects of the fund, including the decision to hand large venues $15,000, compared to the $5,000 on offer to smaller competitors. But the reaction to his piece hasn’t necessarily been a back-and-forward over the scheme’s finer details. Instead, there’s been an outright rejection of the premise that outdoor dining is bad:

This is to say nothing of Melbourne’s well-established dining precincts, which burst onto CBD spots like Hardware Lane and Degraves Street (Downes says he’d like to see those spots up and running again, but doesn’t seem to give those favourites the same prestige as other indoor venues).

In his defence, if you’re a fine dining reviewer, the difference between most of Melbourne’s favourite spots and the really top-end stuff is stark: I suppose the closest comparison would be a sweaty club show (haute cuisine!) compared to a big-budget outdoors festival (eating on the footpath!). Different fare for different audiences.

It’s also true that not being able to sit down in a restaurant really does suck. But the hope of finding a safer middle ground, one which might also increase foot-traffic in one of the best cities in the world, is kinda nice to think about.

I’ll still eat my chippies while power-walking to Flinders Street station, though.

Image: Avalon Getty Images