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Diving into the Richmond Oysters philosophy

Neos Kosmos visits the family business' newest establishment in the heart of Oakleigh, bringing six decades of seafood legacy and modern culture to your table

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Photos: Vlad Savin Photography

11 April 2017

Since 1959, when brothers Tony and Nick Anassis established a single-fronted retail outlet next to the train line in Church Street, Richmond Oysters have been committed to delivering a superior standard of quality product to their diverse Melbourne clientele across wholesale, restaurant, and retail.

They shucked oysters and supplied fish whilst doing small deliveries to restaurants and bars across the city. This one-on-one approach and door-to-door promotion of their business, humble as it might have been, set them apart. It was this connection with the community and the kind of relationships the two brothers built with their clientele that helped them grow to be one of the most respected seafood establishments in Melbourne.

Personally, I have lost count of the times people from the Greek community have directed me straight to Richmond Oysters for "the best seafood you've ever had". The same 'advice' would come from my family, my Greek friends, and lately from Melbourne's Instagram food connoisseurs. I have shopped and grabbed a bite several times at the Church Street nest, but since the Oakleigh restaurant opened its gates I became even more curious about how it all started and culminated into this impressive premium dining establishment.

I found Sarakosti (Easter Lent) was a great opportunity to explore the menu, so I booked myself a table and arranged an interview with Caleb Griffiths, Richmond Oysters' business manager.

"From early on, I've been fascinated by Richmond Oysters," Caleb who sees himself as an honorary Greek, tells Neos Kosmos.

"At periods they had dozens of ladies shucking scallops, or dozens of guys shucking oysters; there was a huge production behind that little shop."

"There were live lobster tanks, fish display cases, everything," he muses. "Even when there was nothing on display, Evan Triantafyllou, who has been our fishmonger for almost 40 years, would be like 'Wait, I've got something good for you', he'd go to the back, find something he knew the customer would like, cut it up and bring it out. Greek-style."

Caleb, whose mother used to shop at Richmond Oysters, remembers the business flourishing and building a sound reputation on those very relationships.

"Many of our customers and their families had been shopping with us one way or another for up to 50 years," he explains.

"Just like my mother. She would go to them for as long as I can remember, even before I was born. Tony and Nick are our community icons."

In 2008, the second generation of Anassis, brothers Theo and Chris who have taken the reins, decided to expand the operation and renovated half of the Richmond production site into a restaurant with the help of Alex Scoutas, one of the company's retail managers.

"Nine years ago they opened the restaurant, which basically started as a small kitchen. Alex and Evan set it up and the main feature was a nine-metre long cabinet with fresh fish, fillet fish, lobsters, prawns, mussels, scallops, calamari... Alex would make fish pies, skewers, dips, platters; he would come up with so many dishes."

The philosophy of the Richmond eatery was built on the foundations of the retail business. The first restaurant became an extension of the shop and family's heritage in Melbourne and complimented the stark shopfront. It was also fitted out to have that simple, clean, almost surgical feel yet come across as a pristine space offering the freshest seafood of the best quality. Retail and consumption would come straight out of that window.

"In the beginning, someone could come in and say 'I want that tuna in the window, I don't want anything with it, just some rice'. Evan would take it out and Alex would put the most delicious, crisp flavours on that plate."

"We were mainly about what the customer wanted to eat, our service was built on a more personal, or personalised approach and people loved that," Caleb continues.

Year by year, Alex Scoutas would add more items to the menu and evolve the dishes. Based on seasonality and availability he would create the most variable seafood platters that catered for all tastes and this, to date, remains their signature dish.

"It's our two-tier delicious monstrosity," Caleb laughs. "The best and biggest seafood platter in Melbourne. You have mussels, calamari, oysters, prawns, scallops, fish fillets, soft shell crab; and the list goes on."

"Today, Richmond Oysters retains its iconic heritage, continuing to operate from the original location complemented by a retail seafood display, take-away fish'n'chips and a world class restaurant dining experience in the heart of Oakleigh."

Just as Caleb was about to explain to me what the new restaurant aspires to be, the famous two-tier monstrosity arrived to our table.

"Go for it," he says. "It speaks for itself."

I didn't know where to start: a mix of fresh oysters, plain, cooked in the chef's signature sauce, Kirkpatrick; a bowl of chili mussels, four fresh housemade dips, scallops cooked in herbs, crispy calamari, the most delicious fried whitebait, some of the classic fish and chips mix, soft crab, fish fillets, canapes...
The mix of herbs and spices was just right. It would not overshadow the seafood; it would bring out the freshness of the flavours more.

"We don't over-complicate the seafood that we get," Caleb interrupted me. "Unpretentious fashion and a very unadulterated - yet impressive - presentation of the product is what we're all about. It is fascinating what a creative chef can do with such amazing quality produce, and for us the menu is just the guidebook to how you can use the restaurant."

"We'd like to think of ourselves as premium quality but not your usual fine-dining establishment. We have evolved our menu so much but we still want to be seen as an extension of the shop and the family business in Melbourne."

Why Oakleigh? I ask him whilst observing how the fit-out is designed around the display. Open ceilings, halo lights, brick walls, wooden floors. Oakleigh has a very Melburnian-style, upmarket yet warm ambience to it that allows it to be attractive to a whole swathe of nationalities and demographics.

"The owners have grown up and lived in this area. This is their community, where their Greek heritage is celebrated. The opportunity arose with this beautiful large space and they decided to create something wonderful," he enthuses.

"Also, we don't get as many walk-ins as in Richmond but we do get bookings, and people come from across Victoria. Oakleigh, too, has a beautiful display that makes you aware you are at Richmond Oysters but it is more of a destination place. We are offering something different to what everyone else is doing in the area."

I listen to Caleb trying not to lose myself whilst enjoying another set of dishes; this time prawns, a beautifully cooked octopus, saganaki with figs, paella, and sushi. One of the best, cleanest sashimi I've ever had.

"Our clientele is not just Greek people; as seafood is predominant in many cultures. We supply the market, and other restaurants with the best fish and that's what we offer here.
"Our fresh Australian seafood flavours remain unspoiled and that sort of sets us apart. We're not trendy, we are consistent and having been around for more than half a century, we know seafood better than anyone. The success of the business has been its breadth of appeal. You name it, we have it."

Indeed, when you have that passion and energy, not to mention the best seafood, success becomes your best friend. My experience as a customer has always been consistent and memorable yet I feel there is something more than just the food I am buying into.

"True. If you choose to go to the same place again and again then it comes down to much more," Caleb insists.
"There is a real generational relationship with most of our customers. The staff does not change all the time, neither does our approach, we're not chaotic. We are loyal, we love what we do, we respect everyone that comes in and we just do what we do in a relaxed consistent way. We're about freshness and authentic simple humble filling meals, served with a honest smile.
"We take pride in having a great team in the kitchen that pours their heart into the food and an amazing team on the floor that really cares about the quality of service. Restaurants are a relationship transaction not just a food transaction; that's our ethos."

Richmond Oysters - Oakleigh
66 Portman Street, Oakleigh VIC
Phone: (03) 9568 4755
www.richmondoysters.com.au

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