Iconic Carlton eateries honoured in Lord Mayor’s Commendations

Katie Johnson

Before he became the owner of Australia’s oldest vegetarian restaurant, Beh Kim Un was facing an ethical crisis.

Should he continue working as an industrial chemist, or leave his job in search of a more environmentally-friendly life?

Mr Un said that despite having spent years studying to land a job as a colour chemist in a textile firm, the choice was clear.

“At that time, we used drums and drums of chemicals without any idea of the environmental destruction of it, so I thought to myself ‘I can’t spend my life doing this’,” Mr Un said.

After taking a year off to spend time in Europe, Asia and America at the peak of the hippy movement, Mr Un came back to Melbourne inspired to live harmoniously with his surroundings.

“I came back to Melbourne and went to Shakahari Vegetarian in 1978, which at that time was run by Siddha Yoga who were people inspired by eastern philosophy,” Mr Un said.

“I walked in and there was a portrait which said ‘You destroy nature, you destroy the world’ and in that moment it touched me and I wanted to work there.”

He started out working as a dishwasher, before moving to the kitchen, and bought Shakahari later that year.

At that time, Mr Un had never heard of “cashew cream” or other vegan staples, but has since fallen in love with the philosophy and taste of all things vegetarian.

“Our formula for Shakahari is that every good vegetarian dish must have fibre, vitamins, carbs and protein,” Mr Un said.

“For the taste we are constantly changing with the times and introducing new cultures – we introduced Japanese in the ‘80s and then a bit of Mediterranean, south-east Asian and now it’s more global food and whatever interests us.”

Since buying Shakahari, Mr Un and his family have run the restaurant along with a manager who has been with them since 1977.

Although Mr Un said the restaurant was “hanging on by a thread” during COVID, he was flattered to receive the Lord Mayor’s Commendation for 40 years in business and relished the support from his customers.

“So many people deserve the award because Melbourne is great for small business and eateries that are quirky, creative and cut throat,” Mr Un said.

“I believe in the Melbourne spirit and part of our philosophy and our service is to give back to the city and keep making it work.”

“Shakahari is my soul, and Carlton is my home, and while it changes around us hopefully we will be here to continue feeding our generations of customers.”

Another iconic Lygon St institution which opened up the year after Shakahari, is Papa Gino’s.

Owner Alex Brosca and his family were also flattered to receive the Lord Mayor’s Commendation for being in business since 1973.

“It was fantastic to be acknowledged for something like that after so many years on Lygon St,” Mr Brosca.

As one of the only pizza restaurants in Melbourne at the time, Papa Gino’s quickly became one of the most popular eating sports for locals and Melbourne academics.

Forty-eight years later, and the Brosca family continues to serve the same mix of loyal diners, with many multi-generational families coming through their doors.

Mr Brosca said since joining the restaurant in 1980 to work alongside his late father Gino, he’s been able to observe Carlton and its locals evolving over the decades.

“Our family got to Carlton in the ‘60s so we’ve seen huge changes – I went to school at Faraday Street Primary which shut down in ‘71,” Mr Brosca said.

“It was a quiet little suburb with fish and chip shops and milk bars everywhere and eventually grew into a fantastic Italian strip.”

Having been in Melbourne for nearly five decades, Mr Brosca said the restaurant had seen recessions come and go, but COVID was a different beast.

“We’re a university suburb and with all the kids gone there’s nobody around, and with the five-kilometre rule people can’t come from the suburbs so there’s no one to give the food to,” Mr Brosca said.

“The bills keep coming left, right and centre and it does play on your mind that this virus could just take us out.”

Due to the lack of activity in the suburb, the Brosca family decided not to run takeaway during the sixth lockdown.

But Mr Brosca said that as soon as restrictions lifted, Papa Gino’s would be back in full force to offer the quality food and personal service that customers knew them for.

“People love when you greet them and know their first name, it makes them feel special and has kept people coming back since day one,” Mr Brosca said.

“Every time the lockdown ends, feedback from the customers has been ‘Oh, thank God you’re back’.”

Visit Shakahari at 201-203 Faraday St and Papa Gino’s at 221 Lygon St (when they re-open) •

Caption: Beh Kim Un has operated Shakahari since 1978.

Caption: Alex Brosca (right) with the Papa Gino’s family.

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