In the heart of the Riverland, The Mallee Fowl is a place where birthdays are celebrated, blue humour brings forth conversation and any help in locating the owner’s lost pet emu would be much appreciated thank you.
Today is Melinda’s birthday. She’s sitting at a table of 12 over by the bar when Frank, 74, asks why she and her friends have come to his restaurant on this cold, crisp Thursday night. When he finds out the reason, the old man with a bald head, perfectly groomed moustache and a bow-legged waddle fetches an iron pot from behind the bar.
Standing at the head of the table, Frank bangs on the pot so the whole restaurant goes silent. He then explains Melinda is turning 26 today. As he does, her face burns bright red and she buries it in her hands.
That’s when Frank begins to sing. As the opening notes to Happy Birthday tumble out, the man who stands at a little over five feet opens his arms out wide, gesturing for the whole restaurant to join him song.
Some nights there’ll be 200 people packed into The Mallee Fowl restaurant just off Sturt Highway, on the road to Renmark. Frank’ll sing Happy Birthday five or six times on those nights. When the hour grows late, he even drives people home, right to their door.
On this night however there is only Melinda and maybe 20-or-so others in the place for dinner. When the singing finishes, the opening notes to Stuck In The Middle With You pick up in volume.
There is a surreal quality to The Mallee Fowl. Rusting bush artefacts hang from the ceiling. Nailed to the walls are old rock’n’roll vinyl records and foreign bank notes. There are ancient beer posters, a headless, muscled torso mannequin and signs bearing dad jokes, like the one informing people that turtle soup is off the menu because “it’s too slow”.
Ever since Frank and his wife Sue took over the business three years ago, they’ve been adding to the interior. Someone will bring in something weird or wonderful, and they’ll find it a place.
Frank moves through the restaurant like he was born to it. At each table, he asks how the food is, though he already knows the answer. The average plate in his restaurant is $30 for a reason.
What Frank really wants is to get people talking. Sometimes, he’ll just ask how they are going. Sometimes he tells a story or an oddly tasteful dirty joke. Sometimes, on those evenings when the place is packed, he’ll introduce two tables to each other.
Tonight though, it’s the dead of winter and things are quiet. Nearly all his customers are locals. They come in with their families from across the Riverland to eat and drink and laugh. Usually they come when a special occasion like a birthday, anniversary or returning family member justifies the price tag.
Those who aren’t from around here are easy to spot, like the man sitting alone at the back of the restaurant. He booked a table for one earlier this evening and keeps looking at his phone even though service is spotty out this way. He ordered the kangaroo and a glass of red wine.
Frank figures him for a doctor. Frank gets lots of doctors through here. You can usually tell by the way they dress. Doctors dress smart. Doctors eat steak because they can afford to. Doctors order red wine and dine alone when they travel. Doctors are often foreign-looking.
Frank walks up to the man, pulls a chair from a neighbouring table and sits down across from him.
“Are you a doctor?” He asks, point blank.
The man says he isn’t, explains he’s just passing through but heard about this place. Then the two get to talking. Frank tells him about his pet emu, Emily, who he raised from an egg. She’s only a baby, he explains. She used to walk right through the restaurant until the other week when someone brought a dog in. When it barked, it scared her away.
“It must have been so traumatic for her,” Frank says. His eyes are distant and sad.
The man suggests Emily might find her way home. Frank disagrees. The restaurant is set on 24 acres of pristine bushland. Look up and you can see the ancient Milky Way. Look out in any other direction and there isn’t a single light source. It makes you feel small.
And in this big wide world, Frank says, Emily could be anywhere.
“I’ve got all of Renmark looking for her,” he says. “I’m going on radio tomorrow morning. The person that finds her can eat here for a year, on me.”
The man offers to buy him a drink out of sympathy, but Frank turns it down flat. It’s getting late and he has to stay sober to drive the bus. Without a guide, drunks – like wayward emus – don’t always find their way home.