Chris Montel has always been struck by the history of Bill and Toni’s. The restaurateur took over the East Sydney institution — which has been dishing up crisped-to-perfection chicken schnitzels and ice-cold jugs of orange cordial for over five decades — in 2017. Montel, who used to eat there as a teenager, is constantly bearing witness to stories that reflect the role the much-loved restaurant has played in migrant life throughout Sydney.
“One of my long-standing customers, Enzo, was telling me that back in the day, in 1964 or 1965 it really was the place to be,” he laughs. “He told me that it was the place for Italian men if they wanted to meet an Italian girl. Back then, Stanley Street was Sydney’s real Little Italy and it was the first restaurant that Bill and Toni opened up. Toni ran the restaurant upstairs and Bill ran the café downstairs, which was then called the San Siro Coffee Lounge. Later on, the place become iconic with the locals as well. Now, they’ve both passed away.”
The legend of Guglielmo “Bill” Chiappini, a twenty-something adventurer from Molino, Sicily who took the boat to Australia on a whim in 1957, pulled cappuccinos in Kings Cross before joining forces with his friend Toni De Santis – then cooking spaghetti at Oxford Street haunt, Martin’s Wine Bar — is stamped all over Bill and Toni’s. But the duo could never have predicted that the restaurant, with its arched windows, terracotta floors and terrace-house balcony that juts out over Stanley Street – would become one of Sydney’s unofficial lounge rooms. And not just for second-generation Italians but for celebrities, actors and travellers hungry for easy hospitality and a wallet-friendly meal.
In a city ruled by food fads, the restaurant owes some of its cult status to its menu. What can compete with the comfort of a generous plate of fall-apart osso buco, bolognaese with just the right depth of flavour, schnitzel slathered with passataand mozzarella, especially if the recipes have stayed intact since the late 1960s?
“I think people come back to Bill and Toni’s because of the old-school charm, from the pinball machine and the chairs to the red tablecloths that have stayed the same for 50 years,” Montel tells SBS. “The menu is very small, with just 10 items and everything is just like Nonna used to cook. People know what to expect. We have a chef in the morning and one in the afternoon and some of the waiters have worked here for 20 years. The things they tell me about high-profile businessmen having meetings in the corner, movie stars from overseas!”
Bill and Toni’s may have nailed the formula for weathering recessions, rising rent and a citywide carb aversion and come April, Montel will open interstate spinoffs of Bill and Toni’s in Melbourne and the Gold Coast. Luckily, he’s less interested in tailoring the restaurant for different markets than he is in faithfully replicating the pleasures of the original to those who have already been lifelong fans of the eatery’s cheery atmosphere and honest, tasty food.
“We’re keeping the menu exactly the same, we’re going to install pinball machines and aim to open over two storeys although we won’t be able to replicate the terrace house,” he says. “We’re trying as best as we can to offer what we do in Sydney. I remember playing the pinballs at Bill and Toni’s when I was 16. Being the owner now is a dream.”
Open 6am to 12am daily.
Broadbeach will open March 15 and Melbourne will get its Bill and Toni's on April 12. Locations have yet to be finalised.