This review was written in 2019, please be aware that some elements may have changed since.
Melburnians never needed the succession of big international awards to know that the Black Pearl is where you go for a bloody good cocktail – though undoubtedly those accolades benefited the travellers who now flock to the bar as a checklist destination. Tash Conte’s family-run bar has been a beacon of excellence for decades, and they’re the place many of us learnt how to appreciate a fine drink.
Not content to sit pretty on tried-and-tested masterpieces, their list is always on the move, keeping step with moods and seasons. All summer they’ve been leaning into a tropical, fun-loving theme, taking the tacky cocktails you’d get at an all-inclusive resort and reimagining them into serious contenders. You won’t find many world-renowned cocktail bars serving up a frozen Cosmopolitan, but here they do, made with proper, locally crafted curaçao to give depth and fragrance to the good-times drink. It’s the same kind of pluck that sees them doing an inspired bourbon-and-banana number in the Lady Finger, with citrus, Earl Grey and falernum lifting then tempering their burly flavours for a refreshing tipple that defies logic.
A true legend is a magnanimous one, and in this regard the Black Pearl stands tall. The bar’s record for fostering talent is unmatched, with a litany of fresh faces turning into some of Australia’s best bartenders over the course of their time there. It’s made possible by a watertight team culture, nurtured by Conte with a devotion that’s seen her become a rare female figurehead in a male-dominated industry. It’s what ensures the bar’s legacy even while still fruitfully in business.
We are grateful that all the years of fanfare haven’t resulted in a sense of self-importance, exclusivity or pretension. Wear whatever shoes you like, order your super colada, sink into the sofas and grab a plate of sausage rolls when you get peckish. Locals, clocked-off hospo workers and tourists who’ve come by the grace of Google are welcomed with equal warmth, seven days a week. And while the cocktails, on their own merit, deserve to be appreciated with the full use of one’s faculties, who hasn’t had more than a few hazy nights at the Pearl? There’s always more where those came from at this legendary Melbourne bar.