Before we talk about Belle’s Diner, the long-awaited replacement for Dante’s Restaurant on Gertrude Street, we need to talk diners in general. They're the second homes and stool-lined therapist offices of the American working class. Cheap, fatty, fun joints staffed by chain smokin’ dames who’ll listen to your woes over bottomless cups of bitter black coffee and ice cream and pie. They’re bars, with their innocence intact.
And so for all that Belle’s is – vintage-booth-lined hipster hangout, vinyl-spinning house of Sierra Nevada beers, and server of yet another burger – it’s not really a diner. More just a casual restaurant serving a grab-bag of American classics with varying degrees of success.
The Southern fried chicken is a tasty enough stack of battered’n’fried thigh, but the serve is cheekily petite for $17. Our hearts are grateful for the raw beet and cabbage 'slaw, but it's more South Yarra than deep South.
This is a modern take on the popular diner theme. On the plus side, that means you can get a Margarita with your cheesecake. The downside? It ain’t cheap (four jarred pickles for $5 is interesting) and the reworking of simple, classic dishes is sometimes to their detriment.
The New England clam chowder (traditionally a rich marriage of potatoes, cream and sweet clams) is a disjointed stew of large waxy potato and celery chunks, where the few token clams in the shell are sadly overpowered by chorizo and bacon. Poor little guys.
We love the fist-sized burger’s seeded bun, and the thick fingers of pickle within, although the wagyu patty could be juicier and we reckon a little more attention from the floor would prevent our fries hitting the table cool.
There are wins to be had. They serve one hell of a peanut butter and chocolate cheesecake – soft, satiny, none too sweet and topped with a rich slick of dark chocolate ganache. And you can’t go wrong with a deli platter – a straight-up hat tip to old New York of pastrami, fish dip, pickles and toasted rye.
But in a city awash with joints doing American snacks and doing them well, Belle’s fails to really stand out.
Then again, a diner’s not always about the food. Often, it's just a place to meet up, hang out. And with its Hollywood lights luring the full Fitzroy set in and keeping that long metal counter buzzing late into the night, Belle's is prime turf for a friendly D and M and a drink.