George Calombaris

George Calombaris has got Greece up to his elbows.
Portrait: Corey Sleap

George Calombaris is Greek. That much is certain. But wander past his first (and flagship) restaurant, Press Club, and you’d hardly know it. Press Club is unapologetically modern. Designed by Buro Architects, it’s a showpiece fine dining landmark in Melbourne, much favoured by cashed up city workers… that just happens to serve contemporary Greek cuisine.

Hellenic Republic is very different. Here George Calombaris completely immerses himself and everyone around him in ‘Greek-ness’. On the menu is reasonably-priced comfort food — his grandmother’s moussaka, for example; the décor is full of Greek touches and the atmosphere is intentionally raucous, like a taverna in full swing — just mind the flying plates!

And the name? Hellenic Republic (the official international title of Greece) is a definite statement. George Calombaris is a standard bearer, he’s taken on the mantle of upholding Greek culinary tradition in this country — an onerous responsibility but one he gladly bears.


venue: How is the traditional Greek of Hellenic Republic different to the Greek of the Press Club?

George Calombaris: The Press Club is, I would have to say, Australia’s first modern Greek eatery, and there was always an idea to do a down-scale reflection of that. To show what the Greeks do well, and that’s fantastic taverns. And when I say ‘do well’, I mean in Greece, not here.

venue: You weren’t interested in joining Melbourne’s Greek precinct on Lonsdale Street then?

GC: No, it’s not that I’m not interested; I’m kind of embarrassed by that street. I just don’t think it’s a reflection of what Greece is right now. Greece is this amazing European country — it’s got so much history, so much detail, so much passion and love of food, service and wine and that’s something I wanted to bring here.

I did a lot of research and really dug deep for the little references I wanted to have in the space. I wanted to have elements that represented the coastal environment, like the cray-pots. There’s a beautiful little spice shop in Athens that a Turkish guy runs, I took a picture of one of his walls and replicated it here. So rather than having all the herbs and spices in the back of the kitchen, the chefs actually cook from the spice cabinet on the wall. Typical tavern chairs are quite small but similar to the ones we have here, although we’ve tried to make them a bit bigger and more comfortable.

The position was important as well, I love this end of Lygon Street; I think it’s quite quirky, colourful and interesting. And as you’re driving up the street the first thing you see is all the graffiti of King Leonidas and the 300 Spartans [down one exterior wall]. Then when you enter into the venue you come into a little Greek oasis where you can smell the aromas of the wood-fire char-grill — it’s absolutely gorgeous. People are eating and drinking, and the music’s in your face; it’s out there.

venue:  It’s raucous.

GC: That’s what we wanted it to be, we never wanted to have a barrier between the front and back of house — you can literally touch the chefs. Meanwhile, the Press Club is very formal: there’s linen, the waiters are all very proper; here it’s a bit grungier. One of the waiters, Arthur, has designed all the uniforms and he’s nailed it — it’s a cross between a Greek police officer and a fisherman — so they’re wearing white Dunlop Volleys, navy blue King Gee pants and an amazing shirt that he designed with a big army belt. It looks fantastic.

It’s funny because we don’t have any Greeks working at The Press Club except for Angie our restaurant manager. But we said from day one, just like everyone can say ‘prosciutto’ and ‘bocconcini’ and all those Italian words, they’re going to have to say Greek words. So we have Greek classes every two weeks at The Press Club and staff have really embraced it. Here we’ve actually picked up five or six young Greek kids that are fantastic. They plonk the water bottle on the table and you help yourself, it’s that casual atmosphere. I don’t want people to come in here and expect Press Club service in a different environment.

Detail for me is very important — the food should be fantastic, affordable and flavoursome regardless — but there should be more, there should be substance. I think dining is an experience. A customer said to me the other night she feels very emotional. I told her you should feel emotional everytime you eat; if you’re not emotional, you’re eating rubbish, and life is too short to eat rubbish.

venue: Has the Greek community taken Hellenic Republic to their bosom?

GC: So far… yes! At The Press Club it’s the opposite — 90 percent of our clientele are non-Greek — whereas I can already see there are going to be a lot of Greeks coming here.

venue: Nostalgia must have something to do with that?

GC: We all love to relive happy childhood memories. Press Club doesn’t really give too many people memories in terms of its fitout — it’s sleek and contemporary — whereas here there are lots of little reference points that jog the memory.


venue: Did you direct the fitout to make sure it evoked those nostalgic feelings?

GC: Mills Gorman was our architect. My partner George works with the builders, whereas I spend a lot of time with Craig Gorman shoving photos in front of him. I told him I wanted as many rounded edges on corners as possible and he did it in the courtyard really well. If you look at architecture in Greece everything has rounded corners.

The cray-pots are absolutely fantastic, the communal table, the spice rack, all these instances we spent time together running through and developing. The chair took so long to get right, but I like to spend a lot of time on getting those details perfect. Another example: I tried to find the woggiest cutlery possible, so when a Greek customer picks it up they’re saying, “Oh you remember that, that was at grandmothers’ house” — that’s what it’s all about.

venue: Do you need to have obsessive-compulsive tendencies to be a good chef/proprietor?

GC: I’m not obsessive-compulsive, I just want things to be right. There’s got to be a point where there’s a balance, but I’m obsessive about detail. To me detail is everything, which sometimes consumes my broader view, but that’s okay because I’ve got a partner that’s the big picture person, so we work well together. We’d probably be failures otherwise.

You look at some fitouts and they’re spending millions of dollars… it’s incredible! I think there are better ways to do things — more thinking and research is required. The good thing about Craig is he actually listens to what we want and understands our theory… and he’s not Greek!

venue: How important is it to feel like you own the design, that there’s that comfort in knowing that it’s not built around you, but it is you?

GC: It feels great, and it’s like my fishmonger. I’ve had him for years, it’s more than just supplying fish, it’s this common denominator, it’s this connection. Don’t get me wrong, Buro Architects did a great thing with The Press Club, I think it’s a beautiful design, but it was my first restaurant and there’s not that much of my influence there. Whereas here and at Maha [Bar & Grill, Calombaris’ Middle Eastern-infused restaurant] we’ve had a chance to express ourselves, and there really haven’t been many points where we’ve butted heads. And sometimes butting heads is good because it triggers something better. We were talking about doilies and I told Craig “It’d be great to hang a doily up.” And he responded, “George, leave it to me.” If you look in the courtyard at the rusted inserts where the windows are; it’s a pattern from a doily! So it’s good he didn’t just write off my crazy idea, he thought about it and came back with a reinterpretation. I’m really happy.


venue: You’ve explored a very different path since Reserve. What happened, what changed?

GC: Reserve was an amazing experience for me, I wasn’t the owner there, I was just the chef. That little restaurant will go down in history. Once Reserve closed I had six months to think and that was a really important bridge. It allowed me to think about my plans to do modern Greek — if I launched into Hellenic Republic before Press Club, I reckon I would have failed.

The Press Club was really clinically thought out, and I was fortunate to be in the position where I’m Greek but there was not one decent Greek restaurant. I know how to cook Greek, I know the flavours because I grew up with them. Translating that into a modern approach took a lot of thought, but it was easily achievable.


Calombaris has made Hellenic Republic a family affair. Crafting the eatery around memories of Greece including snippets and clippings from his own relatives: there’s pickled fruit prepared by his mother in the display case, poems from his grandfather and a $24 version of his Yia Yia’s (grandma’s) moussaka — likely only costing Calombaris a kiss when he was younger. It’s this familiarity that saves it being a showy move to shore-up his credentials; rather, it’s an affectionate gesture to remind the Greek community what it feels like to come home again.

venue: You’re one of a handful of people who have got fine dining restaurants that are also rolling out a casual, cheaper experience. Is that a trend, a coincidence, or a sign of the times?

GC: It’s perfect timing right now, what with all the reported doom and gloom. I think this will do really well because people still want to go out and have an experience; they want to be waited on, made to feel good and not spend $120 a head, like they would at The Press Club. They’ll come here and spend $50-60 a head and feel nourished. Guy Grossi did it, who else has opened something downscale?

venue: Teague Ezard…

GC: Andrew McConnell… so my only thing was I didn’t want to be too close to the city, I wanted to have a little bit of a drive to get to the next venue, but not be too far either.

venue: It certainly adds an air of authenticity about it not being in the city and not being in a fashionable restaurant precinct.

GC: Everyone asks me where I opened up and when I say Lygon Street, East Brunswick, they ask, “What’s out there?” Just wait and see. I’ve tried to spend as much time as I can out here talking to people, and the people that live here are really excited.

venue: Has this always been on the cards or a recent idea?

GC: When I wrote the business plan for The Press Club, I always intended to do this. My progression plan was never to do Maha [Bar & Grill] that just happened by coincidence, whereas this was definitely in the plan. I look at people like Maurizio [Terzini] and he inspires me with what he’s done for Italian food over the years. He’s done everything from Caffé e Cucina to fine dining Icebergs, to Bondi Italian… he’s done every level that you could think of.

I’m not saying I’m going to roll out a Greek sandwich bar next, but I’ve got ideas. Greek produce is another thing that still hasn’t been tapped into and I’d love to do something in that vein, with the influence of a little mezze bar. I think about that progression, and that’s what’s so beautiful about Melbourne: you’re allowed to do things like that and people will embrace it. But you’ve got to back it up with the service because if you don’t give them that they’ll crucify you. – Mark Davie

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *