From the Bull and Finch Pub in Cheers to Moe’s in The Simpsons to Paddy’s Pub in It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, the local neighbourhood bar is a beloved narrative anchor in popular culture. And in real life too, neighbourhood bars provide that mix of familiarity and nostalgia that’s so comforting in our hectic, digitised lives.
Melbourne is home to some excellent neighbourhood bars, yet the west was strangely lacking one until 2019. Footscray local Leigh McKenny filled the gap in July of that year by transforming the former Michael’s Deli, an Eastern European delicatessen, into an attractive eatery and watering hole that’s retained all of its retro charm.
By day, it’s a café that provides a welcome relief from the usual trifecta of brunch suspects (eggs, avocado, muesli). Here, sandwiches rule supreme. The current menu reads like a New York deli blackboard. A meatball sub is just the right amount of sloppy, with bite courtesy of grated Grana Padano. A poppy seed bagel from 5 and Dime can barely contain a sharp, salty and tangy combo of house-cured salmon, red onion, capers, dill and burnt scallion cream cheese. A focaccia from the legendary bakers at Baker Bleu (with takeaway loaves available on Fridays and Saturdays) provides a pillowy home for Meatsmith smoked brisket, house-made wholegrain beer mustard and house-made mayonnaise – perfect simplicity. A melt-in-the-mouth potato roll encases a thick crumbed chicken breast, lettuce, mayo and neon-yellow American cheese; it’s like a KFC burger, but better. The ode to fast food continues with American cheddar seductively melting over Meatsmith sausage and a fried egg in a potato roll, reminiscent of a breakfast muffin from the house of golden arches. Vegetarians get their fill from an eggplant sub or a broccoli, egg and cheese sanga. And regular specials that could be a fish burger or a sub packed with a crumbed chicken finger in a spicy vodka sauce keep things interesting.
There are a handful of sides, like green and yellow string beans under a snowy mountain of ricotta salata, a simple potato salad and house-pickled carrots. Although his operation is small, McKenny makes most things in-house and keeps things local by sourcing his fruit, veg and fish from the nearby Footscray Market.
In the morning, well-made flat whites using beans from Artificer Coffee in Surry Hills are sure to pep you up. At lunchtime, a yuzu drink made from unpasteurised fresh yuzu juice, soda water and a little sugar syrup is just the thing to cleanse your palate after those hearty sandwiches. Or if you’re feeling a little festive, they’re just as good chased with a wine or beer. There’s usually one red and white wine on rotation – on this occasion, a juicy 2018 Xavier Goodridge Papa Pinot Noir from Warragul; a delicate 2018 Xavier Goodridge Halfway to Heaven Chardonnay from Geelong; and a textural blend of shiraz and sauvignon blanc from Sam Vinciullo, who champions progressive farming and zero additives. You can order other natural-leaning drops by the bottle.
From Thursday until Saturday, Romans Original stays open till late. Mates, couples and older locals compete for coveted spots on the red-topped bar or one of three small tables to chew the fat over a glass of wine, a bottle of Peroni Red, or a rotating cocktail like a White Russian or a Negroni. Soul records play just audibly, the lighting is dimmed and moody, and McKenny drops by your table to check everything’s going well and ask about your day. The neighbourhood bar where everyone knows your name lives on with this very welcome addition to Footscray.