The mighty oak
Street art in OakleighIf you’re pining for portokalopita, Oakleigh will welcome you, because in this corner of Melbourne, Greece is the word.
Greek civilisation can be traced back at least 2500 years; the Oakleigh version is 60 or 70. But it seems a fairly pure strain of the original, and when you consider that at last year’s state election it came down to a contest between a Mr Dimopoulos and a Mr Zagraphos, then the homogenisation of middle Melbourne has detoured around Oakleigh. Come here for a Greek fix; for everything else, there’s the Chadstone behemoth up the road.
It probably helps that central Oakleigh isn’t split up the middle by a major arterial road; it sits snugly in the armpit of Dandenong and Warrigal Rds, so pedestrians more or less rule on its central core of one-way streets.
Cars are barred from Eaton Mall; instead you have two blocks of tables seating groups of (mostly) elderly (mostly) Greek (mostly) men who sip coffee, play with their komboloi (worry beads) and converse animatedly. The subtle smell of charcoal and meat pervades.
For years, one establishment ruled Eaton Mall and that was Nikos (corner of Portman St), a cafe dishing up wonderful spinach and filo concoctions, sweet Greek tidbits, plus the most spectacular special-occasion cakes. Then a few years ago, one block away, up popped Vanilla (corner of Chester St), with a similar array of awesome sugar hits. Try Nikos for walnut-rich treats made with birds-nest-style kataifi pastry and the custardy chocolate donut known alternatively as a yoyo or a kok. At Vanilla, the flavour bomb is orange in a cake called portokalopita, while galaktoboureko is a less-leathery version of a vanilla slice.
A meatier meal can be had at Kalimera Souvlaki Art (41 Chester St) that lives up to its name. The oregano comes from Greece but all other herbs are from the owner’s garden.
Oakleigh has an indoor market (between Portman and Chester Sts) but it’s more of a snaking arcade, with a good fishmonger, a fruit and vegetable barn, and an authentic deli, in front of which radio Radio Hellas does occasional broadcasts on weekends. Those who remember the heady days of Melbourne pop radio in the 1970s would be amused to know its call sign is the immortal 3XY!
The area is also strewn with Greek music shops, glitzy gift shops and boutiques catering big-time to the wedding and christening trade.
For a Greek tipple, check out the array of ouzo in the small supermarket in Atherton Rd. That this place sits between a pizza parlour and the Little Korea grocery store shows Oakleigh can produce exceptions to the rule, and one of the most interesting is the German butcher (19 Portman St) and its richly flavoured frankfurts.
In neighbouring Hughesdale is a food phenomenon in the form of Oasis Bakery (993 North Rd). This is no longer a Middle-Eastern bakery but a food venue where so many styles cohabit. So among the 100 or so spice selections (many sporting fun descriptions on their shelf), you’ll find condiments and chocolate from most European countries, wonderful dips (the smoked eggplant is divine) and exotics such as organic almond milk and full-strength drinking vinegar. You can eat in or take away: falafel, meat-filled shawarmas and warm cheese pies.
Next to the oval on the Warrigal Rd fringe of central Oakleigh is what at first glance is a tree-lined park but is actually the pioneer cemetery. It was used from 1860 to 1959, and although many headstones are weathered, you get the idea of what times were once like. One grave contains a man and his two wives: one died in 1851, the second in 1884. The stone says: “Think what wives should be and they were that.”
The park precinct also hosts the RSL (95 Drummond St) but many know it as the venue for the Caravan Music Club, which hosts local and imported acts of a certain vintage Fridays-Sundays. Coming up are the likes of Kevin Borich, Rebecca Barnard, Brian Cadd and Pokey Lafarge.
Every Sunday morning, the carpark on the corner of Atherton Rd and Hanover St hosts a market where you’re sure to find something you never knew you needed until you see it here. Many stalls are mini department stores, and on any day you might find someone selling: succulent plants alongside rusty nuts and bolts (four for $1); only slightly used tools plus a Shark motorcycle helmet (in maroon); DVDs, one saucepan, a Winnie the Pooh lamp and a hedge trimmer; and one offering various old lawn-mowers plus several tins of second-hand paint. It’s also great for plants, and to help them grow, a man with a truck full of sheep manure is there most weeks.
Oakleigh has two of Melbourne’s best golf courses, Metropolitan and Huntingdale, but on the northern edge is one that’s almost invisible. Oakleigh Golf Club (off Park Rd) is so small the par is only 29, but its narrowness can make it just as challenging as the famous ones.
For a more adrenaline-filled leisure outlet, try Sidetracked indoor go-karts (370 Huntingdale Rd).
Oakleigh could well become Melbourne’s next real estate find. The streets are wide with established trees and the house blocks are big but it’s still got a great local flavour. Taste it soon.
Local tip: You can easily cycle or walk here, as the Scotchmans Creek Trail is part of a network that will take you all the way to the city or east towards the hills.
Local tip: Monash University in next-door Clayton isn’t just for students. It’s got a great arts/performance venue – check artsonline.monash.edu.au.