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.