The latest incarnation of the Esplanade Hotel in St Kilda, one of Melbourne’s most famous pubs, is far too big and sprawling to simply pop by for a pint. So to make the most of this venue’s epic new incarnation, we spent 12 hours of an early summer Sunday there. Here’s what we saw.
Noon in the Front Bar
The wide front stairs still lead up into the palatial front bar, but instead of dark and sticky, it’s bright and beautiful, the ceiling replaced with glass to flood the area with summer sun. Chandeliers and moulded ceilings, a soaring wrought-iron staircase, peeling paint, towering potted palms and walls adorned with black-and-white photos of Aussie rock legends make the space feel like a Miami nightclub in a historic beachfront mansion collided with a classic Aussie pub.
1pm in the Espy Kitchen
Down a hallway past the working recording booths is the Espy Kitchen, which serves as the pub’s bistro. Most of executive chef Ashley Hicks’ menu is available throughout the venue, but the Kitchen offers table service and food like seafood platters and an 800g dry-aged T-bone that beckons from a meat cabinet in the corner. We opt for octopus. Unfortunately, that charred and smoking mollusc on the fire seems unrelated to what we’re served – our tentacled friend seems cool, chewy and very salty.
2pm in the Balcony
The Balcony is set aside as a function space on level two, offering its own bar and views out to the water, as well as windows back over the front bar. It’s the most spacious and open part of the venue.
3pm in the Gershwin Room
Rock’n’roll is infused in these walls like prayers in the vaulted ceiling of a cathedral. It’s a wonderful thing to see it open again, largely unchanged from years gone by. The bar and stage are in the same place, folks in black band T-shirts slurp cans of Melbourne Bitter, and Iggy Pop plays on the fantastic sound system. Band booker Sean Adams (previously of Prince Band Room) is doing a cracking job with the line-up. Today it’s Jim Mogini (Midnight Oil) and the Family Dog – classic Aussie rock that’s tight and loud and fun.
4pm in the Public Bar
The public bar occupies the space under the Gershwin Room, downstairs from the front bar. It’s retained a bit more of the rough-and-tumble locals vibe that the main pub area has lost, with the cricket playing on a big screen at the end of the bar (sound down). We order a pizza – it’s head and shoulders above what you’d find in most pubs. The beer list is also a highlight.
5pm in the Basement Bar
There’s no one playing in the basement bar tonight, but the website lists upcoming shows for local acts, and anyone is welcome to email in to book a gig.
6pm in the Front Courtyard
The small front courtyard on street level is shaded with green-and-white-striped umbrellas for a decidedly seaside look. Here lunching ladies, tattooed rockers and sunburnt backpackers enjoy the view and a dart or two and chat with the incredibly friendly security guards.
7pm back in the Front Bar
The Espresso Martini, one of the many high-quality cocktails on offer throughout the venue, is on the sweet side. But it does the trick if you want to wake up without slowing down on the booze. You can also get a “pony & shot”, a tiny beer paired with a nip of spirits. Bar snacks are great, like a brioche roll filled with crispy fried Moreton bay bug, fresh and satisfying, slathered in spicy mayo.
8pm dinner at Mya Tiger
Up the wide staircase, you’ll find restaurant Mya Tiger. It’s a fun-times Chinese-inspired diner in the vein of Supernormal, serving bao, dumplings, pippies in XO and Peking duck with a great attitude and lots of colour. Are there better spicy pork wontons in Melbourne? Yes. Are there any served in a gorgeous 140-year-old pub while the sun sets over Port Phillip Bay through the windows? Nope.
10pm cocktails at Mya Tiger
Across from the restaurant is a dedicated cocktail bar. The drinks are largely the same as those on offer downstairs, but it’s a more intimate and (somewhat) quieter space, and there are a few extra tropical numbers to be had.
11pm with the Ghost of Alfred Felton
At the front desk you can ask for a special key to get you into the cocktail bar on the very top floor, the Ghost of Alfred Felton, named after the philanthropist and art collector who once kept rooms at this historic pub. Attentive bartenders are happy to talk you through the drinks of the day and tailor something to your needs. The cocktails, presented in a gorgeous bound bar book, are all pre-Prohibition style and beautifully executed.
Midnight at the tram stop
The new Espy is new, there’s no doubt about it. There’s a disconnect between the old rock soul of this place and its new shiny personality that might never be comfortably reconciled. But maybe that’s what Melbourne is now – a place where community and inclusion is more important than tribe. This is not the Espy of old, but it’s here and big and 100% Melbourne, and that’s a good thing for all of us.