I was back in Melbourne and ready to tacky the sprawling city again. I had on my own traversed the city so many times over so returned for those last few remaining gems hidden around those sprawling suburbs away from the CBD. And for literally ages I had planned to volunteer somewhere in the city partly for personal satisfaction and partly to join the cool kids benevolent enough to volunteer in their own time. Lentils is cloaked within the famous Abbotsford convent, once a Victorian hub for the church and now a garden/picnic area for Victorians looking to eat, relax and socialise. Amongst the restaurants and cafes lies the unique Lentils as Anything, a restaurant with a lentilist policy: you pay what you think the food is worth, or what you can afford. It’s a nice earthy place where young and old take advantage of the communal atmosphere in a place slightly more glamorous than a soup kitchen because of the high vaulted ceilings, three large-scale windows facing out to the calm serenity of the gardens, the aboriginal art decked collectively around the room and the tables tightly crammed into such a tight space… essentially though it is a glorified soup kitchen.
I first went after a lengthy walk from my than suburb of Collingwood. Outside the atmosphere was thriving even though the weather had already picked up on that frigidity which blankets Melbourne over those winter months. Satisfied I was at a place catering for an alternative type of cool (so much has been made of hipsters in Melbourne that it made a pleasant change to have people sporting unkept dreads and a uniform of drab, poorly fitted tie-dyed shirts, loose-fitting skirts, harem pants and wicker shoes embracing their vegetables and earthy ideals) I grabbed my grub. The meals from what I remember were a true mixed bag. For example, whereas there would be rather addictive potato dahl curry, the salad would be rather listless and the poppadoms would be saturated in a deeply unpleasant oil. As always with my sweet tooth I was more interested in the deserts, which this time consisted of banana bread and maple-inspired scones. Both were stodgy and didn’t have a light, subtle flavour, although I did return several times, which arguably indicates I wasn’t that dissatisfied with the food. Much of the benefit of eating there is the worthy service you get there, although it can almost be too attentive. Like most of the staff at restaurants many are keen to in press their personality whilst serving you. The waitress who took my drink order actually managed to inform me about several different types of tea by assuming I wouldn’t know anything about … anything really.
What I found most amusing was a blog article I found just before I ate there where one person suggested the ‘Lentilist’ policy was a ruse to prod our western guilt, especially as the food was marginal, the aboriginal art bordering on offensive (whilst eating, supposedly) and the staff were all recent immigrants who knew nothing about customer service. It said:
Appallingly bad art hangs on the walls, some of it enough really to put you off your food. There are too many tables too close together, and it is all a bit like the lounge and dining room at Continental House in Hepburn Springs. Someone mistakenly made my coffee with soy milk (and so I discovered that soy latte [which should really be called a cafe soy if you think about it] is really not a bad drink). My other coffee though, a strong cafe latte, was as strong as bull’s blood, the strongest latte I have ever seen.
Presumably this article was suggesting there actually needed to be a culinary exodus because it basically wasn’t a viable option to eat a good meal at. When I was there I found the drinks service to be caring and the atmosphere to be intimate, organic and delightful. I decided I simply had to work there.
So the next time I planned to go to Lentils was to express my interest, and to sample some yoga. The time I next went, a bitterly cold Sunday was where a poetry reading took place instead of the yoga. The poetry was hosted by a small, awkward, bumbling, somewhat disheveled mass of a man. The poetry ranged from marginal to shocking, my favourite being a guy who wrote a poem (at his old workplace) which referenced how much he hated his boss who made him work without a great deal of justification for why he vehemently loathed the man. He then went on an extended rant about Zionism, which was anything but engaging (although his expressions of deeply impassioned pain were thorough and fascinating to behold). Another person, a lesbian (big aspect of her life, evidently) wrote a poem about her love of her bicycle whilst a dour Scottish preceded her and decided to bore everyone to tears about his episodic poems referencing substantial, and deeply uninteresting aspects of his life (one was around 25 minutes and involved him singing in an uncomfortable, self-conscious manner his journey from the highlands to random spots in Australia). On top of this I had spent a decent forty-five minutes of my time speaking to a volunteer who spoke at great (an extreme in fact) length about his love for Nicole Scherzinger including theoretical examples of how he would protect Nicole (noticeably for when she saw Lewis at the time of the London riots, to which I pointed out she probably wasn’t in the country at the time, and if she were she would obviously be holed up in a secure hotel away from Hackney). Amused by events like this I was even more keen to lend a hand and become a lentilist.
So I volunteered there. And admittedly I didn’t last long. I managed two shifts plus the training. I think the idea of working there would have been ideal, had people not been quite so obsessive about the nature of the job, with everyone almost fanatically following the rules whilst still desperately trying to demonstrate how easy-going and effortlessly cool they were, which was – without trying to be rude – unbelievably annoying. I definitely found that working there was both cathartic and beneficial for the soul as Lentils remains a grungy gem of Melbourne. Eating there though is where Lentils really wins though. It’s a place that feeds all; with a family of regulars who wander in at exactly the same time everyday. It also gives people a place to while away the hours and a place for poets and musicians to get their name out in hopes of wider glory.
Whilst searching for stuff on the famed place I found one review, which although a little barbed was thoroughly amusing, which I simply had to include below:
People love this place because it’s cheap (i.e. they don’t pay) and the whole experience makes them feel bohemian for a night. In reality, the food is bland and cold, coffees take forever to arrive (if you can make an order at all), and while some are nice, there are too many staff and patrons alike with haughty bad attitudes. I’ve been scowled at by the former for having the audacity to ask if there were any more bowls, and by the latter for asking if a chair was free. And don’t get me started on the blonde American lady who appears to run the joint. She’s sooo nice to some but outright rude to anyone she deems below her royal hipster highness. Get over yourselves, you pretentious dolts.
And apart from some of the points in this review, Lentils is perfection for dinning on a basic scale. When in Melbourne, Go!