nice carsCrikey reader KR writes: Wandering along the wide, green leafy streets, everything seems in place. Towering white terraces framed by exquisitely manicured hedges; a cat, warming his belly on the bonnet of his owners BMW in the driveway. This is the South Yarra you’ll remember. Proud, established, refined.

Dodging an excited golden retriever along the way, I meander down towards the main drag.

Toorak Road realty has long been exclusive to designer baby shops, chic cafes and an unusually high number of hair salons; bar a florist or two, that’s basically the retail breakdown, which was just how the residents liked it. Perfectly tailored for the demographic.

But something is different. France Soir is still up the top to the right, as it has been for the last 22 years. But the teetering pavement tables of Jean-Paul Prunetti’s French brasserie aren’t packed as they so used to be on a sunny Saturday afternoon.

Past the world’s most expensive dry cleaner (that has been known to charge $74 to remove the night before’s misguided kebab from a dress) and I stumble across the newest Toorak Road resident: The vacant shop window.
BillsHollowed out spaces with last month’s Coles catalogues and yellowing envelopes stuffed under the front door are curling in the sun. They look like bills. In the 400 metres from Punt Road to South Yarra train station I count nine on the main strip alone. Sadly the GFC may have swallowed up boutiques, galleries and restaurants. But one industry appears to be booming.

From the IGA Supermarket on the corner of Avoca Street I spot The One Massage. To the left is Thai Take Care and directly across the road is Zhen’s Relaxation Therapy. The One
Asian massage joints are flourishing. Perhaps for South Yarra residents in these tough times, retail therapy is out and muscular therapy is in. Intrigued by the ‘competitive’ placing of the three shops, I head into Zhen’s.

“Hello, hi there”, I say. The shrunken, elderly owner sitting on a plastic chair in front of the counter eyes me suspiciously, brow furrowed.

“You with government?” he quips. A girl in a massage chair catches my eye and we share a giggle.

“No of course not,” I reply. Perhaps he saw me jotting down details out the front, or maybe the pencil and notebook in my hand is an odd accessory for someone with tight shoulders. But surely he knows a good massage would trump an overstayed visa raid?

Maybe Thai Take Care will be a little more obliging because curiosity is getting the better of me.

The young girl at the front counter is much friendlier. We chat for a little bit and she tells me they came to Toorak Road because of the good quality customers. The swan-shaped fluffy towels and comfy beds look inviting, so I take a card as we get to talking about the competition around here.

“I don’t know why they opened up so close to us,” she says. “My boss asked them why they did and they said it’s because they like Thai massage.”

“That’s a bit bizarre isn’t it?” I add, especially as they specialise in Chinese massage. “Anyway thanks for the card, I might give you a call to make an appointment.” She smiles and thanks me as I leave the shop.

Unfortunately the owners of The One won’t be back until 6pm, I’m told by the young man who greets me eagerly at the bamboo beaded door. So, tired from all the sleuthing, it’s time to enjoy one of the more traditional Toorak Road therapies, a coffee. By now the dark clouds are rolling in anyway, which is fitting in the context of my discoveries.

Latte at PicnicSipping a creamy latte at Picnic pondering the reasons why people aren’t at work is a most leisurely past time, and the other customers seem just as relaxed.

Out the front on the long communal table a man flicks through the paper as his pug dog entwines himself in the legs of the stool. A young James Dean lookalike leans back in his chair reading a novel and tops up his glass of water holding the bottle at the base as if it were fine French Champagne. Perhaps he’s a waiter at France Soir. Ladies are lunching en route to the races, their hats wobbling as they step into the refuge from the blustery weather outside.

Watching a young mum openly breastfeeding her brand new baby at the table next to me, cutting up her toddler’s lunch and chatting away to her husband I realised, South Yarra hasn’t fallen from grace, nor changed for the worse. It’s just let its hair down a bit, taken a step back into the real world. The GFC has made it younger, edgier and quirkier. And it’s a nice place to be.