LET’S DO LUNCH: Ian Markwell works his magic at Al Gators in Newcastle East. – Picture by Ryan OslandIt is 2.30 on a sunny Monday afternoon and the phone at Newcastle East eatery Al Gators is persistently ringing. Owner Ian Markwell sits down at one of the six small tables to eat a quick lunch of some hot chips and a sandwich while co-worker Kerry Irwin – ‘‘Her husband’s name is Steve’’ – answers the phone.
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Markwell has been here since 5.30am chopping up vegies for the salad bar and crumbing chicken schnitzels, which are the star ingredient in the popular Mexican chicken burger that also features melted cheese, salsa and guacamole – the perfect hangover salve.

But Al Gators’ loyal customers, who include police, surfies, barristers, office workers, and fluorescent-shirted tradies, prefer Greek and falafel rolls this early in the week. My favourite is the jaw-expanding vegie burger featuring an array of salads, salsa and a fried patty. Markwell’s stepson Shane Davis, who has worked with him for the past 20 years, is charged with making the patties, which consist of ‘‘vegies, oats and a few sauces’’.

Everything except the seasoned beer-battered chips, pies and sausage rolls is made on site.

Markwell’s interest in serving vegetarian food harks back to the 1980s when he owned Cafe Gritz on Darby Street, before moving on to Eccles in the Civic Arcade and Al Gators’ early incarnation, Crusties, which was around the corner on Hunter Street.

‘‘We had to change the name from Crusties because it wasn’t registered,’’ Markwell recalls. ‘‘I saw a crazy T-shirt in Hawaii advertising Al Gators Cajun Cafe San Francisco. It had a picture of an alligator smoking a cigar – I’ve still got the original at home – and I thought it was funny.’’

Markwell, who is 68 on New Year’s Eve, has observed the transformation of Newcastle’s food scene since opening his first establishment, the Coffee Urn, in Cooks Hill in 1982. Back then, Darby Street had perennial favourite The Bistro, Taco Bills, a hamburger joint and a steakhouse. Thai food was yet to make an appearance and the takeaway food explosion was still on the horizon.

Tastes have changed and Darby Street has been transformed.

‘‘I like the vegetarian stuff – it’s what I eat myself – but you can’t make a living out of just vegetarian food now,’’ Markwell, who taught himself to cook because his mother couldn’t, says. ‘‘We also used to do hot food – pasta and curries – but there was a change of clientele so you go with the flow. You serve up what people want.’’

The inner-city apartment boom has been great for business, with construction workers and other tradies lining up out the door for the 10 o’clock morning tea break, though since the completion of The Royal development, the once brisk weekday breakfast trade has dropped off.

Markwell, who also employs a third assistant, Chriss Cross, works six days a week, taking just a couple of weeks’ holiday a year. It’s for this reason the business, and the two-storey building he also owns, is for sale. He has already knocked back one offer because ‘‘they were going to come in and change everything’’, and will only sell to ‘‘the right person’’.

He’s been thinking about slowing down for a while; he’d like to finish work on his house.

If he doesn’t get the right offer, Markwell will consider winding back his shifts to just three days a week next year, though customers are crying out on Facebook for extended opening hours, including Sundays.

For someone who has always responded to the desires of customers, Markwell is clearly in a bind.

Rosemarie Milsom

Al Gators, 12 Pacific Street, Newcastle East. Phone 49291386. Open Monday to Saturday for breakfast and lunch.