Call of The Wild

Iguana’s Waterfront Bar, 12 Dane Drive, Gosford. 

Iguanas Waterfront is located at the tepid end of Brisbane Water. Just across the road from the Central Coast Leagues Club, the Bluetongue Stadium and Grahame Park where the tents go up when the circus is in town, Iguana’s calls to passing motorists from a car park edged with palm trees, signage featuring a giant iguana devouring a cocktail umbrella and – a conspicuous landmark on the Coast – a roof of four sails impervious to the breeze.

With plenty of competition for customers in the area Iguana’s edge is its location. The bar and brasserie face out onto the shallow water of the bay, and indeed, the whole establishment is built out over the water. Unlike its landlocked neighbours, Iguana’s is almost afloat and boasts 180 degree unobstructed views all the way back to Lion Island in the far distance. Since the meals cost no more than a meal at an RSL, why wouldn’t you consider Iguana’s for Sunday lunch?

And so I find myself – along with my wife and daughter – sitting at a table on the edge of the brasserie waiting for the electronic buzzer thing to go off. Like most establishments of this style it’s all about assisted self-service; line up at the register to order and pay, buy your own drinks from the bar, find a table, collect your meal when the buzzer sounds, eat your meal, go home. The only time I see staff out from behind the scenes they’re just collecting glasses or dirty dishes. No chit-chat.

Going out for a meal is all about atmosphere and Iguana’s is all blue. From the tiles of the entrance steps and the walls of the main big room, everything that isn’t glass, a table or a chair is painted blue – which fits in nicely for the water side location and the brasserie’s seafood-heavy menu – but gives the place the impersonal air of a corporate function room.

Fellow diners are of course the other major contributing factor to the feel of a restaurant. The remarkable thing about this particular Sunday afternoon is that the clientele at Iguana’s is overwhelmingly middle-aged, female and in love with lobster. Parties of women sit at the long tables chatting over Lobster Mornay, Ocean Penne and Pan Fried Atlantic Salmon accompanied by bottles of white wine. Their conversation is lively but low key. The only other men I see are a couple of young guys at the next table eating what appears to be some sort of mezze plate [but the identity of which can’t be confirmed on the menu] and some old blokes shuffling towards the glassed-in smoker’s area, packets of Horizon 50s in their hands and a despondent look on their faces.

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Back in the mid-1980s, post-student and not doing very much at all, I scored a casual job for a company doing market research into what people did in pubs. I sat in various hotels around inner Sydney with a clip board and tally sheet keeping tabs on the number of people present, their gender and age, those drinking, what they were drinking and – crucially – what else they were doing. The marketer’s aim was to find out if people spent any time watching sports on TV and to discern if there was room for a competitor to the then-dominant Sky Channel. The answer to their question was completely unsurprising – people did very little except drink, the number of patrons swelling after work, then dropping off around dinner time, then back up again until close. But all they did was drink.

Iguana’s sits at the end of an evolutionary line that began its crawl out of the primordial pub slime about 25 years ago. Someone discovered that pubs and hotels could be more than a place to drink beer and so, slowly at first and gathering pace into the 1990s, beer gardens were developed as a place to eat, management discovered that some customers might even like Asian food, or gourmet pizzas, or want to cook their own steaks. They even started offering real coffee. Then the avalanche of development took over as old pubs were decimated and entertainment barns for all ages became the dominant feature on the suburban landscape. The old bastions of eating out – the RSLs, Leagues and Bowling Clubs – slowly adapted. The giant iguana on the front of Iguana’s isn’t an ironic comment on the status of these gigantic creatures but an admission that these quasi-dinosaurs rule the world.

Suddenly the buzzer goes off. In addition to the usual bleeping and vibrating across the table, the mobile phone-sized wedge of plastic has a tiny speaker out of which comes a woman’s voice: “Your meal is now ready. Thank you for choosing to dine at Iguana Joe’s. Your meal is now ready. Thank you for choosing to dine at Iguana Joe’s…”

The T-bone steak is the gold standard for places like Iguana’s. It’s a cut of meat very easy to overcook or overpower with a sauce. Mine arrives and it’s a beautiful brown medallion shaped hunk of meat balanced atop an artfully constructed mound of sweet potato, broccoli, beans and beetroot, all of it topped by a sprinkling of spring onion shavings and a sauce replete with black pepper bullets. It’s cooked perfectly – well done – and the texture is soft and succulent. It tastes fantastic. Rachel went for the Beer Battered Fish Fillets served with chips and salad and is – in her words – “cooked to perfection.” Lily, who is three, is super excited to be eating out and welcomes her Fish & Chips and Salad with glee.

As we eat, an obligatory guy-with-guitar is sitting on a stage at the far end of the brasserie, knocking out a cover of Summertime. The sky is winter blue and the train to Gosford rifles along on the other side of the bay. Boats move slowly in and out from the nearby ramp. It’s on days like these I remember why I moved to the Coast from Sydney.

This was not my first time at Iguana’s. When we first moved to the Coast we didn’t make many forays to local restaurants or bars. Our heads were still in Darlinghurst with its embarrassment of dining choice and competition so fierce that if you weren’t much good you were out of business before the lease ran out. We dropped in at Iguana’s late one wintery afternoon and the dining was already over. The place was full of men desultorily drinking in groups as a bitter wind blew in from the bay. The lights in the men’s toilets were out – [a voice in the darkness – for Christ sakes no one light a match!] – and so my initial impression was not good. When the whole Belinda Neal thing blew up in the media the first thought that crossed my mind was why on Earth she would have chosen to take anyone there. Surely there must have been something better around?

The answer is that there isn’t. Iguana’s services a clientele who are willing to pay around $50 a head for two courses and expect to get a plate covered with food for their money. That Iguana’s can meet that demand is commendable and the quality of food is excellent. The Coast doesn’t have many of what you would call “fine dining” establishments because there just aren’t enough people who are willing to pay upwards of $70 for two courses for a dot of food marooned in the middle of their plate. Iguana’s may be unremarkable in most respects but it meets a standard set by its competitors very well. I didn’t come expecting to find truffles on the menu and I wasn’t disappointed when I didn’t. Instead of the angst that I would have experienced five years ago I’ve come to accept what the Coast has to offer and be happy when the experience exceeds expectations.

We finished up our drinks and calculated the cost. Around $55.00 for three meals including a 10 percent Sunday/Holiday surcharge, plus $14.75 for a glass of wine, schooner of New and an orange juice. Not bad value, really, and we walked out into the sunshine.

Published in The Coast Magazine, circa 2005.

© Andrew Frost 2005

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