The Colonial Tramcar Restaurant [http://www.tramrestaurant.com.au/en/] is a stroke of business genius. There is no more appropriate place to dine in Melbourne than on a tram. This popular tradition, dating back to 1983, operates twice nightly, providing a five-course dinner and liberal amounts of alcohol while gliding and occasionally grinding along the streets of central and southern Melbourne to the greatest hits of Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and Abba. Irresistible.
There are actually three trams, clearly the same American-style model as the City Circle vehicles, and from the outside they look surprisingly tired, in a dull red-brown livery with lamps missing from the illuminated display above the door. Inside, however, the two restaurant compartments are a feast of plush curtains and mirrors and extremely comfortable seating in twos and fours: each of the two compartments seats a total of eighteen. The maitre d’s introductory announcement mentions that the evening takes 3½ hours and that the on-board lavatory is the smallest in the southern hemisphere.
The staff of three that I witnessed at work was the acme of teamwork. No sooner had the wheels begun to turn than the champagne came round, and as we pottered back and forth, reversing from time to time, they presented a choice of pâté, a choice of entrée (the Australian term for a starter), of which I had duck risotto, and a choice of main course, of which I had an excellent, thick and perfectly cooked steak. The trams are fitted with stabilisers, and there was – wisely – no thought of soup.
Individual service was leisurely, in keeping with the steady ride through the streets, while the staff worked non-stop to maintain an efficient and apparently effortless service to thirty-six covers. And all the time the wine, a simple choice of red or white, was poured and poured again. It was one of those wine-waiter situations where the only way to slow the flow is to keep the glass full. I forgot.
There’s something magical about gliding through the streets, gazing through tinted windows at the ordinary world we customarily inhabit – people waiting at crossings and tram-stops, yellow taxis picking up fares, shop windows, houses.
There was only one discordant moment, somewhere around the University, when the car paused opposite a tram-shelter where there was what in England is called a tramp and in the United States a “derelict”, complete with his carrier bags, seated in state. The tram moved forward to reverse in front of a urinal.
Most of the time we processed back and forth around the centre and out to the beach-resort of St Kilda, which is magical in the evening. After the main course, the three trams parked up at Albert Park for a cigarette-break, and then dessert (in my case date pudding), coffee and liqueurs were served. Eventually, in good time, we were returned to our starting point, where a fleet of taxis was lined up waiting. I sauntered into my hotel thinking I’d quite like a malt whisky, but fortunately the bar was shut.
The following morning I didn’t want to move very fast. At the coffee shop (I’d given up on the hotel breakfast) the barista made a great deal of noise bashing and grinding behind his big machine. When I walked across to the Southern Cross Station the locomotives were roaring very loudly. I caught a tram, which shook a great deal, to St Kilda and sat very quietly until I felt better.
The Colonial Restaurant Tram is not cheap, and worth every cent. But it’s a good idea to keep the wineglass full for much of the time.
Update: The Colonial Tramcar Restaurant is not operating at present because of an apparently acrimonious dispute: Melbourne’s famous tram restaurant sues Yarra Trams (theage.com.au).