The new venues shaping St Kilda

St-Hotel-St-Kilda-dining

You’ve probably noticed that everything hip that is happening is in Fitzroy, Collingwood or the CBD. And perhaps Northcote or Yarraville.

People are also doing things in St Kilda and somebody has to tell the story.

St Hotel

Imagine what the illegitimate love child of the Royal Saxon and The Prahran Hotel would look like.

It would probably be very much like the St Hotel, the reimagined Saint nightclub in St Kilda, which is almost finished and may open very soon.

Last week 700 or so local riffraff, venue owners, girls, boys, girls who are boys, girls looking for boys (and daddies) packed in for the opening of the new multi level venue; on the ground floor a Chin Chin leaning Asian restaurant and bar; a club and private members lounge upstairs.

The look is concrete, dark steel window frames and raw ply. At least I think the look is raw plywood panels. It may just be that part isn’t finished yet.

The central atrium hangs over the restaurant and provides a glassed in balcony for clubbers and VIPs.

Upstairs there’s a nifty machine with lockers where you can recharge your phone after a long night on the town.

As soon as it’s open properly I’ll report back on the food.

Dog’s Bar

The good news is that the food has improved and the booze is cheap. The bad news is that the room is still badly in need of a good clean-up.

The pasta portions are huge and cost under $20. They are tasty and filling – I could barely finish my bowl – but nothing worth crossing town for.

The new manager, Lachlan Sleeman who was last seen in Melbourne running the London in Port Melbourne, has put Estrella on tap and red, white and pink Dal Zotto wines from the King Valley. At under $30 for the equivalent of a bottle, you can’t argue with that.

The usual local personalities and colourful characters are back. But in attracting the new upmarket generation of St Kilda locals the Dog’s Bar now has competition.

The-Nelson-St-Kilda

The Nelson

What was once Slow Down at Harley Court, and prior to that the local favourite cafe Spuntino, is now The Nelson an exciting new arrival to St Kilda.

What the new owners have done is taken a dark dungeon of a room, which was always awkward, and turned it into a light airy space that people want to be in.

The design, by Techne, uses recycled timber from wharves in Docklands creating a combined central bar and shared table. At 2 metres there is a watermark creating a nautical vibe, and below that walls are supposedly distressed by the tide.

The idea is a rum bar with 35 different varieties and some pretty decent cocktails and beers. The wine list is okay and the food menu is developing.

The whole marinated BBQ’d fish for $29 is cooked well and is amazingly good value – as are the chunky rosemary potatoes ($9) and the beetroot salad ($9). The seafood paella at $27 is also good but felt expensive for its size.

I was there last night with the neighbours. And I’ll be in The Nelson a lot and look forward to seeing how they develop.

Lona Pixtos

If you were going to open a tapas joint 5 hours down the coast this is what it may look like. As my neighbour said: “I looked inside and didn’t like it and didn’t go in”.

Lona is the St Kilda cousin of the Armadale pinxtos joint of the same name. It brings with it a suburban vibe and playlist, which unfortunately is played loudly in the street.

The pinxtos are cheap and are available at $1 each to anyone who signs-up to Club Lona. My impression is that the are more about the scheme rather than any kind of culinary innovation.

The wine list starts at $5.50 and cheap drinks seem to be the go for the crowd which appears to have the same suburban pedigree as the venue.

Gami

Yes, Korean fried chicken has arrived in the space once occupied by Worksense hair salon. The service area in the front and kitchen in the back are designed to look like bright yellow shipping containers.

The chicken is precisely as described on the menu and is the drawcard. The sous vide chips are not.

Dr Jekyll providor

With the arrival of the Dr Jekyll providor, selling various goods and pre-cooked pies, lasagnas etc for takeaway, the cafe’s kitchen has moved into what was the awful Base Pizza. It means the cafe now has a proper kitchen and can be more ambitious with its food.

They’ve applied for a liquor license and the hope is this will become a good value local wine bar in the evenings.

Meanwhile, these guys make the best coffee in St Kilda with their own blends from Clark St roasters. Come summer cold drip is on tap.

I’m hoping in the summer evenings they’ll do a wicked espresso martini.

What next for St Kilda and the Dog’s Bar?

Dog's Bar

Has St Kilda lost its mojo as a destination or has the rest of Melbourne caught up?

As I write this the Dog’s Bar is ten minutes from re-opening (at 4pm October 2 2014) under a new manager and what was Slow Down at Harley Court is now The Nelson, a cool looking rum bar, that opens on October 17 at 4pm

I see the story of St Kilda’s decline and potential for rejuvenation as the story of the Dogs Bar, where the former owner operator of 12 years was kicked out for reasons you can read about here.

Once St Kilda was the place to be. Circa The Prince with its white leather banquettes was the hottest restaurant in Melbourne. The Melbourne Wine Room at the George was bustling. It has since changed owners twice.

St Kilda is currently without Donovans and the Stokehouse, both recent victims of fire. Donovans is closed till after Christmas and the Stokehouse has moved to the city until it can be rebuilt.

The Dog’s Bar was once a casual dining destination, but the quality of service and food declined while the rest of Melbourne caught up and became better places to eat and drink.

My affair with the Dog’s dates back to my moving around the corner to it in June 2000 after four years in Sydney. On any Friday night four couples from four houses in the street would go there with friends. There may be 10 to 20 of us depending on the night, drinking, eating and smoking.

I can remember crisp service, reasonably priced and decent food and booze. And then a year later the brewing giant Lion Nathan bought it.

These were the days before you could buy craft beer in a bottle let alone on tap in a pub or bar. Friday night was VB (or Carlton Draught) o’clock until Lion took over the beer taps.

Lion Nathan with a loyal beer drinking base in NSW was trying to take the Carlton and United Breweries stronghold of Melbourne by buying up pubs including the Dog’s Bar, Bimbo Deluxe and a few more.

They failed and their Melbourne boss David Carruthers, as the story was told at the time, negotiated the Dog’s Bar as part of his exit payment.

All continued as normal with Becks on tap which tasted pretty good in 2001.

By the time I temporarily left St Kilda in 2009 the bar had slipped. Staff had moved on to be replaced by camper vans of backpackers and the food, though still cheap, was sloppy – watery pasta being the most striking aberration.

It took over the space occupied by a small restaurant next door for functions, eventually becoming a so-called arts hub which ran for a few years.

Another distraction was taking on the popular next door cafe Spuntino and transforming it into Slow Down at Harley Court, a locovore restaurant than never made it. It closed with reports of unpaid rent and staff entitlements.

A development in Geelong came and went with the Global Financial Crisis. And more recently Carruthers was running The MEMO function space behind the St Kilda RSL on Acland St – another tale of unpaid rent.

I think it’s a story of losing focus on the core business of the Dog’s Bar that was steadily declining in the food and booze stakes as better more current places opened in the CBD laneways, up north in Fitzroy and Collingwood (and more recently in Prahran and Richmond) while much of St Kilda stagnated.

MoVida, now a decade old, opened with it’s casual bar and laneway attitude. Bar Lohrinha on Little Collins St followed a few years later. Andrew McConnell took the ideas of modern Australian dining to its logical conclusion with the opening of a Cumulus Inc on Flinders Lane in 2009.

Young chefs chased cheaper rents. At first on Gertrude St – think Ladro and Anada – and then Smith St with Panama Dining Room and Huxtable that came before Gigibaba (sadly closed), Northern Light, Easy Tiger and Lee Ho Fook and all the others populating the 86 tram route.

There are some quality spots still in St Kilda (let’s not forget Di Stasio) though it appears even Andrew McConnell has been challenged by the location, transforming Golden Fields (which appeared successful) into Luxembourg, a French bistro.

The problem is that St Kilda has long been a retail destination with rents that reflect what it was rather than what it is now.

There are a few new venues opening for summer. I’ll review where to eat and drink in St Kilda in an upcoming post.

I’m off to check out the Dog’s Bar right now.