Owner & Operator, Il Solito Posto
In 1994, Michael Tenace turned an old bank vault into a culinary institution, Il Solito Posto. His menu, including his grandmother’s coveted Penne Ragu, has remained unchanged for 27 years, which is a testament to the authenticity of his food. Michael has garnered a loyal following of diners, from CEOs to out-of-towners, and he continues to be a much-loved cultural and hospitality icon in the building and beyond.
How did you end up in hospitality?
When I was young, I lived in Reservoir and there was a little window with views of the city. My dream was to be in the Melbourne CBD. When I was nine, my mum opened a ladieswear boutique in the Southern Cross Hotel on the corner of Exhibition and Bourke. I was always running around and that’s when I met the late Morry Fishman who used to own Miss Louise. On my school holidays, Morry and I used to walk up the road to Pellegrini’s. That’s where I had my first watermelon granita.
When I was 14, I met Theo and John Poulakis in their first menswear store on Swanston Street. I did my work experience and after a few years, I started working for Harrolds. We used to meet at Pellegrini’s before work and there was always friendly banter with the late Sisto Malaspina across the bar. We would complain about how bad the coffee was and he would disagree. When I was 23, Sisto eventually said, “Michael, why don’t you do your own thing?” and back then, I had noticed that there was a big hole in the Paris-end of Collins Street. During this time, I started helping my mum in her clothing manufacturing business, but I’d always had my eye on this area. When 101 launched and the opportunity came up, I jumped on it.
It was the early 90s and the world was trying to get out of a recession. This whole area was a ghost town. I used to walk up and down the laneway and see windows full of dust. This site was originally part of The Bank of Victoria, and when we started renovating, we discovered that the original bank vaults were still there! The amount of work that had to be done to get it up to scratch was insane. I didn’t have a lot of money – I had to beg and borrow to get it done, but luckily my dad was very handy. We worked day and night for ten months. 101 contributed to the works and we were up and running on January 24, 1995. From the start, I always wanted to create an institution and if 101 hadn’t believed in me and my concept, it would never have happened.
What stands out in the last 27 years?
I’ve seen it all! The one thing that stands out is seeing 101 evolve but stay true to its core. It has really kept its identity. The building is constantly evolving, but always maintains its original essence – I still think it’s one of the most impressive foyers in Melbourne.
There’s nothing quite like walking through there with weary eyes after a 14-hour shift. It’s a beautiful building. 101’s integrity has helped me keep my integrity at Il Solito.
Another big stand out is the people, from the tenants to the management. For example, a gentleman and his son would come in regularly for meals in the early days of Il Solito. It turned out that he had been part of the engineering team that constructed the building. Over their meals, he spoke about how proud he was of being part of the creation of 101. I would listen and it made me realise that I’m part of something special. Recently, the son came in and told me that his father had passed away. He sat in the same spot, eating the same meal and reminiscing about the great times he had with his dad.
How have the last 12 months affected you?
The last 12 months have been the most challenging in all my time here. We always feel safe being part of the 101 family, but March 2020 was trying for the whole world. I was on my knees. I didn’t know if I was going to last. Nobody knew what was going to happen. I had just finished building a house, I never thought I’d be the guy who didn’t have money in the bank. I have a successful business; I’ve worked hard for 26 years; how did I end up here? The stress was terrible and it almost broke me, but 101 came to the rescue, from the owners down. To receive a call from the building manager to say you’re going to be okay meant the world to me.
Who has inspired you along the way?
I didn’t follow any trends. I did my own thing, and I did what I loved. But I can’t go past Sisto from Pellegrini’s, he got the fire burning. I credit my inspiration to so many different people: Gilbert Lau of Flowerdrum, Maurice Terzini who started Café e Cucina, Matteo Pignatelli from Matteo’s, just to name a few. They all made me feel like there was something special in this industry.
101 has also played a huge role. I recently got a call from building management saying, “Michael, people aren’t going to return to 101 unless you’re open” and then an email from the CEO of Telstra who loves to eat here, saying, “Michael, you can do it, you have what it takes”. Those moments really helped me believe that I would get through this.
How important is a sense of family in the restaurant?
Family is everything. My staff have all been with me for eight to ten years, so it’s not just me who loves 101. My manager of 13 years just left for a sea change. We had a fantastic relationship, through good and tough times. It’s taught me what it’s like to have a good team behind you, to cherish and grow with them I’ve learnt how valuable it is to look after your staff. The people and the tenants of 101 are everything and any long-term tenant has their own incredible story.
What’s your favourite menu item?
Choosing my favourite thing on the menu is like choosing a favourite child! If I had to, my go-to would be Penne Ragu, which my grandmother taught me to make. Keeping the core dishes for 27 years creates some nostalgia. When the gentleman that I had previously mentioned whose father passed away came in, he ordered the same Penne Ragu he ate with his father. That’s why we keep it simple and familiar. I learnt that from Sisto at Pellegrini’s – keep it real, keep it fresh and give people something to remember.
What does the future hold?
Well, we continue to stay true to ourselves. 101, on the other hand, has a lot of initiative and I look forward to seeing what it comes up with. Whether it’s the sustainability programs or end-of-trip facilities, it’s always doing something different; keeping its values while moving forward. I never thought I would have a legacy like this. I leave home in the morning and that little boy who had visions of being part of the Melbourne CBD, is now a part of its history. The hospitality industry is a tough industry, but that doesn’t stop me from loving what I do.