If you Google Percy’s Bar & Bistro, you get dozens of entries from restaurant review sites. Pretty much all of them rate it between good and very good, praising the wholesome yet modern Australian fare – great steaks, fantastic risotto, a “to die for” corned beef and mash, and the king of all Melbourne pub food – the ubiquitous parma (chicken parmigiana, for the uninitiated), with its long-standing companion…. the pot (a 10 oz glass of draught beer).
Yet, as good as the reviews are, they never give you a sense of what we really go to Percy’s for. And by “we”, I could probably include 99% of the patrons, but I definitely mean a group of friends that meet there on a Thursday night every couple of months or so. We’ve picked Percy’s Bar & Bistro, simply known as Percy’s, for one reason only – we are Carlton tragics. Every one of us is what you’d kind-heartedly refer to as a footy nerd. We can rattle off statistics of past Carlton champions with mind-boggling accuracy. We delve into the club’s history with nit-picking obsessiveness. And we discuss the club’s politics with the seriousness and fervour you’d associate with a group plotting the overthrow of an oppressive government. And Percy’s lends itself to such meetings.
Percy’s is named after its owner, Peter “Percy” Jones, who played 249 games for Carlton, played in four premiership teams, won a best and fairest, had an ill-fated year as coach of the club, and, apart from having been a terrific football person, is an all-round nice bloke. And just in case you weren’t sure that this pub – in the absolute heart of Carlton (the suburb), owned by a Carlton legend, and patronised almost exclusively by Carlton supporters – is actually a “Carlton” pub, it becomes obvious the moment you step through the doors.
I always walk in through the Elgin Street door – the pub is located on the corner of Elgin and Lygon Streets – right into the Public Bar. The first thing that hits you is the massive number of large photographs, posters, and newspaper clippings of Carlton players – celebrating goals, toasting premiership victories, chairing champions off the arena. They virtually wallpaper the whole place – it stands out as quite clearly “Carlton” from the moment you enter.
The next thing you notice is that pretty much everyone – the mad footy people, the hippy university students, even the young couples out on a date – is either wearing, looking like, or talking about ……… Carlton. You know the old saying about brides? Well it’s only a little different here – it’s “something old, something new, something borrowed, and EVERYTHING Blue”!!
Living in the South-Eastern suburbs, I usually get there a little later than most of my mates, and as I walk up to our crowd, which consists of anywhere between seven and twelve people, I can usually hear at least three separate conversations going on. Two of them are working out who should be traded at the end of the year. Another three are discussing the inner workings of the Board and who should be co-opted to really ensure that the club gets back to its glory days. And another couple are simply shooting the breeze about great moments in the club’s history with anecdotes flying in all directions. I always find myself torn, wanting to participate in every one of these conversations having absolute pearls to contribute to all of them. (If there’s one thing I can say about every one of us, it’s that we’re all “experts” on pretty much everything – both footy and non-footy alike – and we’re all definitely “legends in our own lunchtime”).
And once I’ve settled down with a beer or a mineral water in my hand, said hello to everyone, been introduced to one or two new people, and just generally relaxed after my one hour journey from the ‘burbs, I can look around and take in the atmosphere. And that’s when the next aspect shows up. There are always one or two former Carlton players in the Bar, having a drink, arguing with their mates, and reliving the old days. It is then – having grown up around Brunswick and Carlton – that I really feel at home.
And what does it mean to feel at home here? It’s such a diverse and seemingly totally mismatched group. You see, our ages range from about 27 to almost 60. There are Greeks, Italians, “Skips”, and at least 1.25 Jews. Our politics are, shall we say assorted… – there are liberals, Liberals, centrists, conservatives, old-school lefties, Gen-Y don’t-give-a-shits, and everything in between (I’m reminded of the old Jewish joke about if you have three Jews in a room, they’ll form four political parties). Our jobs are as far apart as you can get – students, small business owners, consultants, a retailer, a salesman, and a stay-at-home Dad. The only times in my experience that such a motley group of different people gets together, is at a workplace, in a family, or as a once-off at a party or function. But then there’s a common job or a common background or common friends…… or common something!! What we all have in common is .. a .. football club! Yes, a very old, successful, and proud football club. But .. just a football club. And meeting here, in the middle of Carlton, in a pub owned by one of our past champions, with all our old heroes looking down at us from the walls (and in some cases, in person), and a thousand little similar conversations going on in other similar groups with similar mixes of similar people, we feel at home. Regardless of the kind of day I’ve had, regardless of the work, family, and personal issues I’ve had to deal with, when I walk in to Percy’s, it all disappears, and I’m back in the 1970s before I had to worry about children, work, money, and health. All I have to deal with is how my footy club is travelling and what do I (and others) have to say about it. And in a strange but comforting way, all is right with the world.
After a few drinks, we go and sit down at a long table to eat. These dinners are great. By now, everyone is pretty well lubricated, and any inhibitions any of us might have had are well and truly gone. So it’s a real free-for-all. The fact that our club has been down and out for the past decade – very uncharacteristic for Carlton – has made most of its supporters quite edgy and extremely impatient. And if most regular supporters are edgy and impatient, then this group is downright explosive. You can hardly hear yourself think. Besides, thinking is optional – speaking (nay, shouting) is paramount!
And everyone has his own little .. er .. shall we say .. barrow to push. “We need a new coach!” “We need a new president!” “Our game plan is inadequate!” “The club is stuck in the dark ages!” “Our recruiting is uninspired!” …….. All the way to “Maybe it’s not as bad as it looks and we just gotta give it some more time!”
To an outsider, it may look like a violent brawl could erupt at any moment, but I suspect that much of the passion is for show, and in reality, most of us just enjoy being in that Carlton environment with a bunch of Carlton people talking, yelling, conspiring about ……. Carlton things.
The highlight of the evening though, without a doubt, is when Percy himself comes and sits down with us. Now I’ve known Perce for about 10 years, or should I say Perce has known me for 10 years (I’ve known him for almost 50 years). When I was first introduced to him with my very Jewish sounding name, he chuckled in disbelief – thought we were playing a joke on him. Somehow, he and I clicked. I think he enjoyed my sense of history and loved that I could recite statistics of all his best games – “this guy’s amazing; how does he remember all this shit?” The second time I met him, I brought along my copy of the book Percy: A Blues Legend and asked him to sign it for me, which he dutifully did “To Moshe, Best Wishes – Peter Jones…. Go Blues, Shalom”. I loved it.
This year, he has taken to sitting with us, talking Carlton with us, occasionally admonishing us for being negative, and sometimes giving us some hitherto unknown titbits of gossip from the old days. He seems to enjoy being with us and the feeling is definitely mutual. The last time we were there, having written a few pieces about Carlton in the 1970s, I printed out a copy of one in which I wrote glowingly about him and gave it to him. He sat and read the whole thing and became rather quiet. I was worried, because I had mentioned some of his brain fades (bloopers), but only to say that while he seems to be known for them, what many don’t appreciate is that he was one of the best “big game” players in Carlton’s history. He looked up quite seriously, cleared his throat, and said “what do you mean by brain fades?” I tried to explain but he was called away, and I had a moment of awkwardness.
Around 11pm, we start breaking up, people preparing for the trek home – a few share a cab to go across the West Gate Bridge, a few hop on trams or walk to trains. Some of us have driven and set off to our cars.
When we were leaving that last time, on the way out I saw him behind the bar and said “See ya later, Perce”. He barely looked up from what he was doing, glanced at me, nodded as if he didn’t know me, and went back to what he was doing. I was a little deflated and was sure that he’d been offended by the article.
I was about 50 metres down the street on the way to my car when I heard a loud, deep voice “Moshe! Moshe!” I turned around. It was Perce. He had walked out of the pub, called to me, and was now waving with the article in his hand. “Thanks for this” he yelled. “Thanks, it’s great. See ya next time!”
And now, with a new football season quickly hurtling towards us, I’m looking forward to that next time. I’m looking forward to meeting with my Carlton brethren, shooting the breeze, sorting out all the problems, bragging about the victories, lamenting the losses, having a few beers and a glass of wine, eating a great Aussie pub steak, and renewing my acquaintance with Percy.
I’m looking forward to another Dinner at Percy’s!