It’s almost lunchtime at the original bills in Darlinghurst, and Bill Granger is set to arrive at any moment. The communal table is full. Suited men and stockinged women chat and chuckle over their coffees, and a group of French backpackers are photographing plates of corn fritters – flashes flickering simultaneously – with their iPhones. This cafe is something of an institution. It’s been like this, maybe without the phones, for twenty-something years. The menu’s still mostly the same.
“I’ll just go and see if he’s ready,” says Ben, who runs the floor here. He has one of those short, tight ponytails, a smattering of facial hair, and tells me he worked for Bill over in London. “Often,” he says, “people queue for an hour in the snow to get a table. Hours and hours for a plate of scrambled eggs! The whole café scene’s different over there.”
As Bill walks in the door, no one stirs. The suits and the stockings keep chuckling and the corn fritters have gone. I’m waiting for someone to point over excitedly, maybe approach. There’s nothing.
The first thing I notice (aside from those pearlescent teeth) is the nonchalance that translates from the pages of cookbooks and the moving images of television – the somewhat public Bill Granger – here to the table.
We chat first about oats and health food (he’s over here to promote his mate’s whole grain muesli bars) but when that’s done I can’t help but move the conversation to Sydney. It is, after all, the place it all began for him.
“I moved here from Melbourne to paint and study. But I just loved cooking and ended up focusing on it.”
He started the first bills – where we sit now – when he was twenty-two years old. To get it going, he borrowed twenty grand from his grandfather.
“The young are certainly fearless, aren’t they?” he says slyly. “Keen to make something of themselves, and hungry to take risks.”
Back then, people didn’t frequent cafes the way they do today. They weren’t apt to share a table with a cluster of strangers. At that time in history, the communal table didn’t exist in Sydney. Ricotta hotcakes with honeycomb butter and creamy scrambled eggs with crisp bacon were more of an anomaly than the kind standard fare they’ve become today.
“Part of Bill’s longevity is due to the fact people in Sydney are great eaters. The food scene here’s special. Everyone’s open to trying new things, as well as the classics. Sometimes I just want to grab a sandwich in the sun and get on the ferry.”
I’m madly scribbling away, getting everything onto paper, when he asks to amend his answer. “Actually, it’s not really a sandwich you grab, is it? I reckon Sydney’s more sushi. Sushi on the Manly Ferry!”
Is there anything he wouldn’t want to miss?
“New Years. Definitely New Years. I’ve always found it strange people tend to leave then, when it’s the best time of the year in Sydney. That’s never really made sense to me. The balmy air and the fireworks and the celebrations. It’s the time of the year you wouldn’t want to miss and people always leave.”
When I ask Bill where he likes to eat when he flies back, he can’t make up his mind.
He says, “Sailors Thai is still great. Still feels authentic.” And then the smile slips away; his face suddenly serious. “Actually, can I change to Spice Temple? I really love Spice Temple.” The fingertips are knocking the table lightly. “Or Icebergs. There aren’t many places like that in the world – the beautiful blue of the beach in that setting. I really don’t know what I should choose.”
“What about when you’re not eating?” I say. There’s laughter.
“It’s not always food. The shopping here is great. There’s certainly the ‘relaxed luxury’ vibe that’s hard to find anywhere else. I love Jac+ Jack, and just walking along Oxford Street. Supporting those places and finding unique shops you haven’t discovered before is always exciting”
When there’s no work to do and he has a casual weekend up his sleeve?
“I can’t get enough of Eveleigh Markets. The fresh produce, the community, Kylie’s dumplings. There’s amazing energy there on a Saturday. Last time I was here Natalie and I had lunch in Potts Point before heading to Nielsen Park and Shark Bay. It’s one of those places you can sneak in early and stay ‘til late.”
But he’s been busy in Bondi. Later this month the third bills is set to open up shop, injecting the same modus operandi - fresh, sustainable food, communal dining - into Sydney’s bustling beachside suburb. Just in time for summer. While there’s sure to be queues, you can guarantee you won’t have to wait in the snow.