Last month, West Australian gastropub Mayfair Lane was named Australia’s Best Pub Restaurant Wine List for 2023.
It was one of many awards the Greek-Sicilian Foni Pollitt (nee Tsouvallas) the gastropub co-owner has collected over the years.
Foni has run Mayfair Lane with her husband Chris Pollitt since 2016 in Perth, Chris’ hometown.
Her restaurant and hospitality begin to take seed in he early 1990s. Foni had many pit-stops around globe from Rome to London to Montreal, and more, including a ‘planet in a galaxy far, far away’, before settling in Perth.
We’ll come to that ‘planet in a galaxy far, far away’ later. For now, all stories begin somewhere, and for Foni that was in Melbourne.
Leaving the nest to broader horizons
Foni, then in her early 20s, felt the need to get away from home even though she loved her family dearly.
” I needed to get out of Melbourne to be me, to be my own person, to have my own voice, because everyone around me was saying, when are you going to find a boy, when you going to get married, when are the children coming? All the time,” she tells Neos Kosmos.
“I never wanted to get married, I did get married in the end but that was never on my card and I didn’t want that noise.”
She left university here and took her studies abroad. Being of Greek and Italian descent, Athens or Rome were the natural destinations for her, and Rome become her new place of study.
Foni always felt much more Greek and Italian than a Anglo-Australian, and felt closer to those cultures and places in Europe.
Her mother is from Sicily and her father from Rhodes, and as Rhodes was once under Italian rule during WWI, her yiayia spoke fluent Italian.
“I love the [Italian and Greek] cultures, the food, the people – everyone asks me which one are you more of? It really does depend on what mood I’m in.”
When in Rome… find a new home
Upon arriving in Rome, Foni found it difficult to get work, and it didn’t help that her Italian wasn’t the best – so many suggested she should go to London, get a job and then come back to do her semester.
She would do just that, but not without any hesitation.
Foni had heard “horror stories” from Aussies who lived in London, about 10 people cluttered in one home with dirty bathrooms and kitchens.
“I couldn’t live like that, even as a 20-year-old, I couldn’t live that way,” she says.
Interestingly, young Foni came to love cosmopolitan and multicultural London, and still does.
In fact, she says she would never have come back to Australia, but the “man made her come back.”
If it was up to her, she would be working in London, while owning a home in Ithaca, Greece – a place she visits every year – where her best friends live.
In London, Foni happened to “fall into hospitality” because she got a job at a bar.
She was studying art history, nothing to do with hospitality or food, but was just looking for any opportunity.
In hindsight, it was her parents’ hospitality skills, that have seen her excel to unimaginable heights.
“I was good with food and that was because of my mother and my father and their love for food.”
“I think it was natural that I ended up working in restaurants, I wasn’t supposed to, but that’s where I ended up.
She says her parents are hospitable people and that rubbed on her.
She rose up in the scene, and worked with culinary stars like Gordon Ramsay, when high-end fine dining was a “bad place for women in the late 1990s to early 2000s”.
It didn’t help that she was “mouthy, feisty and passionate” – it wasn’t a place for her.
Five years in corporate hospitality taught her how to run a business, not just a bar, so she credits that to her success at Mayfair Lane as well.
Get her back to the Greek
Foni moved to Montreal, Canada, and found a place full of ethnic diversity like Melbourne.
Because everyone spoke fluent English and French, no one batted an eyelid to others having an additional language.
“My parents got told off by my teachers when I spoke Greek at home, so I had to speak English, but there everyone speaks their language perfectly, I was jealous.”
“Everyone loved their identity and Greeks weren’t called ‘wogs’.”
Montreal has a large Greek community, with the neighbourhood Park Avenue known as Greek Town.
Foni worked at Trintiy Estiatorio, a Greek/Mediterranean restaurant, a placed that resembles a Greek Monastery one would find in Santorini or Crete.
She “immersed in that culture” and the people there became a second family.
“I was surrounded by my brothers almost, who all took care of me because I was this little Greek girl from Melbourne by herself without her family.”
“They were all trying to take care of me, even though some of them were younger.
“I went to Greek church, I did the whole Easter thing, because I was part of the community and because I was running a Greek restaurant and I knew so much about Greek wines, people came to me for all those answers and I became like a Greek pillar.”
Home sickness was thrown out the window, and a return to Melbourne was not on the cards until a Melburnian of high stature in the food game came knocking on the door.
Back to the land down under
George Calombaris was about to open Hellenic Republic in Melbourne so he poached Foni from Montreal, inviting her and her parents to the restaurant, cooking for them in an effort to woo her to return home and work for him.
He wanted her for her knowledge of wines and for her work at Trinity, which won her an award for her list of entirely Greek wines.
But she wasn’t ready to return and stay in Montreal.
Eventually she returned to Australia, and opened Mayfair Lane with her husband Chris.
They chose Perth because he wanted his parents closer to him than she needed her parents, and with her 80-100-hour work weeks, “family events like christenings and weddings would be hard.”
Had they opened in Melbourne, she thinks they would have gone bankrupt in the first year due to the oversaturated restaurant scene and because all her Greek and Italian family would have wanted free food.
They became the first gastropub in Perth and a “big fish in a small sea” rather than a “small fish in big sea.”
“I think Chris also realised that I needed to be closer to Europe – knowing that geographically I’ve got 4 or 5 hours on Melbourne to get to get to London, it makes me feel better,” she says.
“I hate romance, but I am a romantic, and I do love my husband dearly and I wanted to make him happy, and this made him happy.
“I’ve got lots of reasons why I travel, for friendship and then for people but all for love. That is why I do what I do, my love of food and my love of wine enables me to do what I do because let’s face it, you don’t do this for the money because there is none – you do it for the love.”
Now, to finally address that Star Wars reference early in the piece.
Foni’s travels have seen her all over the world, tasting the best wines it has to offer (she thinks Greece, Italy and France have the best).
One time she found herself stranded in Tunisia, in the village where they filmed the early parts of Star Wars A New Hope, the location of Luke Skywalker’s childhood home.
Her bus left without her, and luckily some locals spoke Sicilian, so she was able to find a phone.