If I were mayor handing out awards to places and people that hold the community together, one of the first would go to the Three Steps on Bondi Road, a local institution that calls itself a café but is rightly pictured as a retro diner, with plastic sauce bottles on yellow laminex tables and about a hundred varieties of eggs and bacon, ham, sausages, burgers, steak and chips.
I’d been there now and then, after noticing that the Three Steps was a haven for taxidrivers, at least in the days there was a taxi garage over the road. Though the garage was demolished years ago, leaving nothing but a weed-strewn lot, the Three Steps is still a home away from home for the travellers, tradesmen and taxidrivers who turn up at all hours, not only for the heaped plates of comfort food, old-fashioned ambience and old school prices, but for the warmth of human company, as distinct as the steam rising from the espresso machine.
Open since the nineteen-sixties, the Three Steps has been owned for almost a quarter-century by Mehmet Ozer, a short, lively, middle-aged man with a twinkle in his eye and a kindness so boundless that regular customers who’ve known him a long time will tell you about the number of down-and-outs he gives a feed.
Something of the same effusive spirit pervades his café with its nondescript exterior and its flapping green awnings; along with its bestseller bacon and egg rolls for $4.90, burgers with poetic names like El Torro and Zingara, and kebabs worth a poem on their own, the Three Steps offers a refuge from the anonymity and indifference of life in a big city.
When I hung out there myself, I met customers who go in for a chat whether they’ve eaten or not. Rekah Balendran came from London six months ago to work for an investment bank, no sooner moving to Bondi with friends than she found herself irresistibly drawn back to the congenial atmosphere of the Three Steps. “No matter what time it is, I’ll stop and have a conversation. Even if it’s midnight. Sometimes I’ll sit half an hour talking to them,” Rekah told me one evening, shortly before a commotion erupted out on Bondi Road.
The young woman exuberantly abusing her boyfriend at the top of her voice seemed to have been celebrating St Patrick’s Day in advance of the occasion. Coming to a sudden halt in front of the café, she aimed one last “fecking eejit” in her feller’s direction before turning to beam at Mahmoud Aktogan, the night shift man at the Three Steps since he arrived in Sydney – and Bondi – seventeen years ago.
Mahmoud doesn’t just remember customers’ names, he remembers what they usually order. He knew without being told that the woman had her mind set on a bread roll with bacon, sausage, egg, cheese, mushrooms, ham, hash browns, pudding and onion, a speciality of the house called an Irish roll. “No mushroom, no onion,” he added serenely, even before she could remind him of the way she liked it. It was ten at night. The Three Steps would be open another two hours, and re-open before six in the morning.
Bondi has such an oversupply of eateries some neighbourhoods are beset by cafes, restaurants and bars, but the Three Steps is one of the last, if not the last joint open all hours for the working people who start early or finish late. “Taxidrivers kick the door if we’re not open right on time,” Mehmet Ozer tells me with a laugh one day, availing himself of the opportunity to add that they stay open even if it’s quiet. “We’re always here for our customers,” he said. I had already noticed he wasn’t one to let a marketing opportunity go to waste. The explanation was not long in coming.
Mehmet grew up in Turkey, and was in marketing as a young man, as the colourful names of some of his dishes attest. But as luck would have it, on landing in Sydney at the age of twenty-four, he started working for a man with a chain of kebab shops, who taught him to cook, passing on the all-important secret of the sauce in which the kebab meat is marinated before it is cooked to order.
Before long, Mehmet had bought the Three Steps, “slowly, slowly” expanding into the house behind the original grill, managing to retain the unreconstructed décor of an old greasy spoon, with garish pictures of hamburgers and chips on the wall-sized menus. But the Three Steps is a place apart. Twelve people work there. Six of them, including Mehmet and his brother, their nephew Sammy and his brother, and Mahmoud Aktogan, a one-time high school teacher, come from the same village in south-eastern Turkey where the population is predominantly Kurdish.
Tempting as it was to imagine the Three Steps as a little bit of Kurdistan down the road from Bondi Junction, it was the wrong image altogether. The diner exemplifies multiculturalism at its inclusive best. I was still sitting talking to Mehmet when his friend, the rabbi, appeared in the distinctive broad-brimmed black hat worn by the ultra-Orthodox. But the religious Jews who live in the neighbourhood only eat at kosher places.
The Three Steps has been adopted instead by the latest arrivals – the Irish transplants who have clustered in the surrounding streets – which is why you’ll find posters for Barry’s Tea, Club Soda and “McDonnells: Ireland’s No 1 curry sauce” hung over the railings, and why I found it full of people wearing green last Sunday.
“This is an Irish place,” said Deidre Hunt, who had ordered an Irish breakfast (scrambled eggs, hash browns, hot ham, mushrooms and pudding), a taste of home after her four years in Bondi. Bound for the St Patrick’s Day march in the city, like many customers that morning, she made it clear that having breakfast beforehand at the Three Steps had become part of the tradition.
Mehmet was as busy as everyone else at work that day, but he wanted to check he hadn’t let one more marketing opportunity slip by. He paused by my table a moment: “Can we say the Three Steps has something to offer everyone?
“And don’t forget we have the best kebabs in Australia,” he added, before hurrying off with another armload of dirty dishes.