When I left my five-year post as restaurant critic for LA Weekly in 2017 to move back to Australia, the final review I filed was for a restaurant called Vespertine, an immersive experience in a multistory glass building that is as much performance art as it is restaurant.
That description might sound familiar to anyone who read my Australia Fare column this week, a review of the d’Arenberg Cube in McLaren Vale, South Australia. I thought a lot about Vespertine while considering the d’Arenberg Cube. The two restaurants have many similarities: they both are inspired by — and in fact inseparable from — the architecture of the buildings they are in, and they both invite us to experience dinner (or, in the case of the d’Arenberg Cube, lunch) as far more than a meal.
Vespertine’s most notable flaw is undoubtedly its rigid self-seriousness. Atonal music grinds while unsmiling waiters wearing dark-colored sacks deliver preposterous dishes, giving no hint that they understand the absurdity of the setting and situation. The d’Arenberg Cube, on the other hand, revels in its own silliness and sense of fun. And it challenges the diner to give in to that joyous folly, or risk wasting $210 and a few hours on a meal (and an experience) that is as ridiculous as it is delicious.
As I point out in my review of the Cube, the restaurant succeeds in large part because of that ridiculousness, not in spite of it. I also quoted a neighboring winemaker as saying that the Cube would be unbearable if it weren’t “kind of daggy.”
Daggy is one of those words that, during my quarter-century living in the United States, were difficult to explain to American friends. Uncool but lovable? A little bit shabby but in a human, endearing way? (I recognize that the word conveys slightly varied levels of distain, depending on geography and the social class of the user, but in Melbourne’s northern suburbs — where I grew up — it had a decidedly affectionate connotation.)
In my opinion, dagginess is one of Australia’s defining strengths. It is certainly a huge part of who I am, and that fact made life in America hard on me at times. The pressure to be perfect in American culture is real, and I was never interested in conforming to that aspiration. My house was messy, my clothes were from the op shop (or thrift store, as they’re known there), my yard was overgrown and besmirched by a (gasp!) clothesline.
Those things often stood in the way of friendships in America. I’m glad to be back in Australia, where it is understood that even if you spend $17 million on something, it might still turn out daggy — and could be all the better for that ineffable, ridiculous quality.
What other Australian words and qualities do you find difficult to describe to non-Australians? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Now on to this week’s stories.