Putting both the "upstairs" and "downstairs" of the Stokehouse in perspective is like pondering the overarching themes in The Great Gatsby. The "Upstairs" formal restaurant at the Stokehouse, like in East Egg in the Gatsby world is the fashionable, high-status, conservative, old money crowd where characters like Tom and Daisy from the book would be prone to dine. The "downstairs" cafe, like in the West Egg of the Gatsby world, is less fashionable and less moneyed - "nouveau riche" by definition.
The Stokehouse Cafe is a great place to "people-watch" both outside on the St Kilda esplanade if you are one of the fortunate ones to get one of the few tables that are seemingly occupied by the same people for hours at a time drinking their same glass of water, but also inside as it is a virtual rogues gallery of locals, holiday-makers and desperate housewives to say the least.
When I presented myself to the kiosk with one other and requested a table, we decided to sit at the bar as it gave us some views of Port Phillip Bay which are not commanding when sitting on the floor considering inevitably one person would have their back to the view. It also gave me an opportunity to observe the kitchen which in retrospect was more fascinating compared to the bay and the people roaming around on the esplanade from afar. The kitchen really has their act together and manage a huge amount of orders in short period of time. The food rarely backed up and I observed an attention to detail that is not usually afforded to the customer in a cafe, however since this one carries the Stokehouse name, I expected nothing less really.
Two cuttlefish skewers with lemon, chilli and parsley ($12) were ordered to share as a starter. Given that the kitchen at any given time had around 25 active tickets, I was surprised to see this starter come out in a reasonable time. In fact I was impressed. The cuttlefish was good however I would have liked to have seen more chilli, but that is just a personal preference. Given the high volume of food that this place produces and the heavy seasonal and transient crowd, I am not surprised that the spice factor is kept very low.
For the mains, for the lack of a better word, but I would refer to them as a continuation, a chilli dog - made of spicy pork sausage, manchego, and jalapeno mayonnaise ($8) was ordered along with the "special" Rangers valley rump steak "from the pit" with chermoula ($28) along with a side of a reasonably priced ($8) Sicilian potato salad. I simply tasted the jalapeno mayonnaise and found it both creamy with once again not much heat, but I was told that it complimented the sausage well. I was surprised to see a chermoula complimenting a rump steak from their "pit" as the flavour of the Moroccan paste overwhelmed the flavours that the fire pit would have given the steak. As a bonus, you do receive a fair amount of steak, in my case, three pieces however my preference would for the cafe to increase the quality of the steak and decrease the portion size.
A chocolate, peanut butter and jelly ice cream sandwich ($10) along with a baked cherry cheesecake ($9) finished us off. Good summer desserts. The staff were very attentive and were always happy to provide drink refills without being asked. Given the high volume of people, there is well proportioned amount of staff, all of them very busy and professional.
The Stokehouse Cafe is not meant to be a fine dining location. It is supposed to be a casual place to dine, relax, meet friends and have simple yet decent food. Besides the steak, I did not find the portion sizes huge but what you do not get in quantity, you are compensated with quality. This is beach-front dining on the St Kilda esplanade and not Qualia on Hamilton Island so you are going to see tourists with prams, people wandering in with their shirt off and in different states of undress and all sorts of nonsense that you would never see upstairs, but does that matter? If you keep your perspective, a good time will be had and your will enjoy yourself like I did.
30 Jacka Blvd., St Kilda VIC 3182
(03) 9421 4599
My Rating: 13/20
Value For Money: 3.5/5
e-mail: epicureanofsouthbank (at) gmail (dot) com
At the time of this post, 57% of the reviewers on Urbanspoon also like Stokehouse Cafe however with 38 votes at the time of this writing, it is a small sample.