What’s in a name? Christian McCabe, the friendly face on the floor at Carlton’s The Town Mouse, says it’s pretty important, but choosing one is far from straightforward.
He’s in the midst of gutting a former cafe on Russell Street and transforming it into a new two-level joint, with each floor likely getting its own name. McCabe insists the air of mystery is far from deliberate.
“When people see a place open, in their mind, they think it was this perfectly conceived idea,” he says. “In reality, the process is very reflexive. You find one thing, and then something else fits in with that. Once you’ve got a couple of ideas that go together, you put something else in there, then you change your mind completely. Over the period of a few months, you wind up with something that hopefully looks like you know what you’re doing.”
Considered one of Melbourne’s best restaurants, The Town Mouse certainly suggests McCabe knows what he’s doing. He’ll be joined in the new venture by The Town Mouse chef, Dave Verheul. Whatever its name, downstairs, which they hope to open by mid-year, will seat around 50-60 and focus on matching grazing food with natural wines.
London-based restaurateur and natural wine distributor Eric Narioo will come on board to handle that side of things, with the idea being that people can pop in after work for a drink and a natter before heading home, or grab a glass before or after they head to the theatre or cinema. Verheul’s offering will be very casual but far from dull.
“There needs to be a balance between food that’s exciting but also has soul,” McCabe says. “Dave really gets that. He’s very precise and presents things artistically enough to keep foodies interested, but also delivers the kind of food that you can eat regularly and enjoy. I have a lot of appreciation for texture and complementary flavours, with wine and music and that genuinely undefinable feeling you get when all the combinations come together.”
Upstairs will follow at a more leisurely pace and may well have its own name. Seating a similar amount of diners, they’ll dish up hearty meals to be enjoyed with a bottle over a couple of hours. McCabe says it will be a touch more formal, but not too hoity toity.
“It’s like we had collective status anxiety as a society,” McCabe says, of a previous push towards fine dining. “We needed to feel like we connected with a culture that’s completely alien to us and be treated like we’re landed gentry or something. Dining out has become so much more accessible and more a part of our daily ritual these days, rather than just for someone’s birthday or anniversary.”
Not that he’s dead set against the odd fancy date night, but for McCabe, eating out has always been about feeling relaxed in good company. “I’ve said it so often now it sounds like a cliché, but to me, the everyday is the occasion. Those chance encounters when you run into a friend on the street and stop for a glass of wine, you almost connect more closely than the planned Saturday night out where you have to get the babysitter.”
If it were up to McCabe, we’d all slow down a bit. “We’re all busy. We’re all torn in so many different directions. If you build up occasions into these big deals, you miss out on the pleasure of sharing with the people you love.”
The Town Mouse | 312 Drummond Street, Carlton
Image Credit: Alice McMillan-Drendel for The Urban List