If you were hungry, unfussy, and in Melbourne at some point the late 90s, you might remember Smorgy's. This was a chain of restaurants that looked like Polynesian barns, serving all-you-can-eat nursing-home food, located in suburbs that your dad visited to buy mulch. But despite these handicaps, Smorgy's was awesome.
Smorgy's was like your worst favorite TV show, or your first pop-music crush—it was crap, but you were too young to know. Yet unlike those things, it's now gone. The chain went bust in the early 2000s, and its locations all burned down or got bulldozed. So to keep the tiki flame lit I compiled some thoughts, photos, and interviews from Smorgy's: Australia's best worst restaurant ever.
The photo above is of the entrance to Smorgy's in Burwood. Instead of regular doors, the Bundoora, Ringwood, and Burwood venues all had weird volcanoes you walked through to get inside. (The Geelong Smorgy's didn't, but I never went there, so whatever.) These fake concrete volcanoes used to blow up as well. Every half-hour or so there'd be a blast of burning gas from the top, just like at the Crown Casino but for kids. It was fucking nice.
Inside there was always one of these things. What you're looking at above is a type of feature wall decked out in plastic plants, a few monkeys, and a waterfall that smelled like an indoor pool. Each restaurant had a variation of this, including one place that had a full-on talking tree.
You might disagree here, but I think there are few things in life more scary than animatronics from the early 90s. It's just how they move—it's terrifying. Also, the Smorgy's animals talked and moved their little faces in the worst way imaginable. They were clearly built by the same psychopaths who made Falkor for the Never Ending Story, or Aslan for the BBC's version of Narnia. At the age of maybe nine I remember looking at the talking tree and feeling my flesh shrink-wrap around my spine. Years later I ate too many magic mushrooms at a party and got exactly the same feeling. Restaurant decor shouldn't feel like a bad trip.
These aren't my friends. They're total strangers in a photo from Flickr, but they sum up the Smorgy's clientele pretty well: There were always a few early-20s dudes getting drunk or sobering up and eating way too much. Sometimes there was vomit in the toilets. Sometimes the vomit wasn't in the toilets. When I was 19 or so I recall coming to Smorgy's after a big day on the sauce. I think that must have been just before they closed up because we threw food at each other and no one stopped us. The employees just sort of looked resigned and gave us dark looks when we left. Staff morale was generally quite low.
In keeping with the spirit of the fake waterfall, the food was served from an unnecessary feature thing. In the case of the Burwood venue the salad bars were built into these boats. The food wasn't great, as I mentioned, but there was a lot of it. There was a whole carvery section with roast beef, vegetables, and gravy. Then there was an Asian section next to an inevitable Italian quadrant, with lots of bain-marie linguini and corn flour–flavored carbonara.
The desserts included a donut machine and a Mr Whippy dispenser, as well as vats of cubed jelly and egg custard. There was everything you could ever want; it's just that its flavor existed in only two dimensions. It was like they had a control knob for sweet and salty, but the other knobs had fallen off and gotten lost. And they didn't even care.
To find out what the Smorgy's experience was like for the poor, poor staffers who had to serve the food and clean puke, I tracked down Johnathan and Andrew, two brothers who collected plates at the Burwood store in the late 90s.
Jonathan: It was my first job. My brother worked there so I had an in with him. And I remember the interview process was really intense. I had to go to their central office and meet this sour middle-aged woman who sat me down and drilled me for an hour. Why did I want to work there? How would I respond in a conflict situation? What was an example of a personal flaw? I was 14 years old, and the job was to collect dirty plates.
Andrew: You think that's bad? I was there for three years. Jonathan and me had the same job, walking around in Hawaiian shirts, putting stuff in a bucket and taking it to the dishwasher. The main thing I remember was that shirt. Mum washed and washed it but it always smelt like a deep fryer and something else. We threw out so much food. The bins were always full of sugary food and it had this smell that my Hawaiian shirt adopted. You could never get rid of it.
Jonathan: I hated the management. It was just this guy named Dennis who was always telling me off. The restaurant looked over a big oval, and Andrew talked about flying a giant kite from the oval that read, "Go fuck yourself Dennis." Did you ever do that?
Andrew: No, that was my quitting plan, but I never did it. I remember all the kitchen staff were like, lonely. There was one chef who always talked about his ex-wife. He was there, making this food every day, all week. I don't think he had anything else going on.
Jonathan: I left after just two months. One time I saw a huge sign on the front that said "Under New Management." That lasted a few weeks, then it closed down. It was actually derelict for a while but I didn't feel sad about it. I think the building is gone. Now it's an apartment block.
Andrew: I might have felt a bit sad when it closed. The place was shit, but it was also part of growing up.
It was for me too, Andrew. It was for me too.