By Roberto Chuter
‘A woman of so shining loveliness.’ – W. B Yeats
It was announced on the 1st day of January 1996, that a Melbourne institution was to be off the menu. Sophisticated, elegant and unique, Mietta’s, in the words of English novelist Howard Jacobson housed “a chandeliered restaurant on one floor, a coffee house and cabaret and salon on another. Now you were in Bohemia, now you were in Versailles.” Now, the iconic Mietta’s Restaurant was to close.
Mietta Fernanda O’Donnell was born in the affluent eastern suburb of Glen Iris on 6th January 1950. She was educated at Sacre Coeur Convent and while going to Melbourne University in 1968 won a press competition which sent her off to Indonesia and acquired a cadet journalist position on the Melbourne Herald. After quitting journalism she worked in a Labour opposition politician’s office but left in 1974.
Mietta was the granddaughter of Italian migrant Mario Bigano, who arrived in Melbourne from Milan in 1928. He became the first and most influential Italian chefs in Melbourne, establishing Mario’s Restaurant in Exhibition Street and playing a major part in changing the city’s cuisine during the 40’s and 50’s. In June 1974, following the footsteps of her grandfather, Mietta, her mother, sister Patricia and her partner Tony Knox opened their restaurant called Mietta’s in Brunswick Street, North Fitzroy. It was one of Melbourne’s early BYO restaurants and its menu was frequently described as ‘adventurous’.
Then in 1974 they purchased and renovated the former Naval and Military Club building at No. 7 Alfred Place in the heart of Melbourne. It became one of the city’s finest and known restaurants and on Friday nights queues stretched to Collins Street. ‘It attracted prime ministers, poets, society matrons, business people and artists who would sit at marble tables with their cocktails and watch Mietta in her signature black dress, standing still with her hands crossed’.
Wendy Harmer described her as a ‘“Queen Cuisine’., a ‘Grand Dame of Dining’, a “Cultural Figure”, an “Ambassador of Melbourne’, of course she was all of these things’. She had an eagle eye for detail, almost X-ray vision, an alertness of a hawk, straightening a white linen napkin here and a white linen napkin there: ‘beautiful perfection’. She surrounded herself with order and orchestrated a salon of astonishing range of events from comedy to art song, poetry to plays and readings with music ranging from jazz to opera alongside forums for social, literary and political issues.
Opera Australia held regular recitals, even Nick Cave wanted to read excerpts from his novel “And the Ass Saw the Angel’ there.
Theatre such as “The Wild Party’, “Oscar Wilde at the Cafe Royal’, “Loot”, “My Dinner with Andre”, “A Dinner Engagement”, “Splendid’s” are some of the numerous productions at Mietta’s. In February 1992, the Melbourne composer/pianist Jex Saarelaht and Kate Ceberano performed at the restaurant. They recorded and later released an album entitled “Open the Door – Live at Mietta’s”. ‘Visiting celebrities such as Barry Humphries flocked to it and Anthony Sher made it his home while he was performing in ‘Richard III’ in 1986.”
In 1985 she established the Mietta Song Recital Award, the leading Australian and New Zealand Art Song competition to promote the performance and wider appreciation of Art Song. “Mietta loved this form of singing and we have been determined that her name lives on in a manner that is actively encouraging, like Mietta herself,” said Mietta Foundation Awards Committee Chair Professor Emeritus John Poynter. Her support for the performing arts was also recognised with a Green Room Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Performing Arts.
Greedy developers reared their ugly heads in the late 1980’s. Mietta and Tony fiercely battled the Oakford Group’s plans to construct a massive $94 million hotel complex next door to their heritage building. This wasn’t going to happen… and thankfully it didn’t.
When my producer Jason Buesst and I met with Mietta to pitch some projects, I found her to be charming, gentle, sympathetic and keenly interested. Bruce Palling wrote that she was ‘a quietly spoken, reserved individual, she possessed a steely core that belied her petite, porcelain-skinned appearance’. .She, somehow, understood the artistic temperament having surrounded herself with numerous actors and musicians. So with her help and support we produced three beautifully successful works in the downstairs salon… The first in August 1993 was ‘Storm Is Her Name’ which starred Christian Wagstaff as Storm with the backup singers/dancers Kate Whitebread and Tracey Flaningan.
This was followed two years later with two solo shows “The Yellow Book” with Antony Neate as Aubrey Beardsley (performed on top of an ornate coffin) and ‘Perks’ with Shawn Unsworth as Percy Grainger (performed on top of the grand piano). This theatrical trio was filled with delicious twists, fine performances set in the beautiful period salon – a perfect fit. Dressed in impeccably black and smiling Mietta always ensured that our cast and crew members were fed and watered before each performance.
Unfortunately Mietta’s entered receivership in 1992, however, they emerged later that year but by 1996 Mietta’s was forced to close and its contents were to be auctioned. The closure of Mietta’s meant that there was now more time for Mietta to devote to her food newsletter, several influential books and Australia’s first comprehensive restaurant guide.
On 4 January 2001 Mietta was killed in a car accident south of Burnie, Tasmania, while traveling to judge at a wine and food festival Tony was the driver of the rental car and was seriously injured in hospital on the day the Requiem Mass was held for Mietta at the St. Mary Star of the Sea in West Melbourne.
He was later charged and cleared of negligence in the collision which also took the life of local man, 34 year old Glen Harman. Tony presented a brief media statement but broke down when he tried to read it. Over 1,000 people from the arts, politics, and the culinary world attended Mietta’s funeral. Asked how life might go on from now, Tony said rhetorically “Without Mietta?” Since losing her he has been quietly rebuilding his life out of the public eye.
Working with Mietta at Mietta’s was an honour, an unforgettable privilege, one not easily forgotten. Mietta O’Donnell and Tony Knox’s contribution to our city’s artistic and culinary culture remains profound. They both have left us with a valuable and enduring legacy.
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