What Happened To Australia’s Waterfront Hotel Restaurants?
The Ozone Hotel in Queenscliff, Victoria, was the site of one of my most vivid childhood dining epiphanies. My family and I were on a beach vacation, having driven down the coastal road from Melbourne around the edge of Port Phillip Bay to its western tip, where Queenscliff sits on a spur of land jutting out into the mouth of the bay. We were a food-loving but insolvent family, so it came as a shock when my mother and stepfather announced that we’d be eating dinner in the grand dining room of the Ozone.
I was thrilled by its chandeliers and pomp, and the fact that my parents allowed me to order the porterhouse steak. It set the standard for every steak since: I remember its heft and bloody tang and the rich peppercorn sauce that came alongside, and I thought, “I want my life to taste and feel like this.”
Built in 1882, the Ozone is one of many Victorian-era pubs (the term refers to these hotels, even fancier ones) in Australia that rise resplendent from beach and riverfront main streets. They are as varied as they are omnipresent; there’s a pub for just about any budget, and any occasion.
These venerable old waterfront institutions were a genre unto themselves, generally more elegant and dramatic than their urban and suburban counterparts. They had dining rooms that mimicked the ostentatious transoceanic cruise ships of the time, built for decorous dining, and large family-friendly patios that overlooked the water.
The Ozone has since become private apartments, and I’m still looking to rediscover the magic I found in that dining room as a child. Mostly, I’ve been disappointed, but a few ambitious restaurateurs are working to reclaim these buildings and recreate the charm and quality they once held.
There seems to be a standard playbook for these old pubs, even those that have undergone some sort of renovation or revamp. Where once you might have experienced true luxury dining, now there is a scourge of mediocre wood-fired pizzas, bland “gourmet” burgers and the requisite fish and chips.
This is what I found at the Hotel Rottnest on Rottnest Island, in Western Australia, one of the country’s most stunning island destinations, just off the coast of Perth. Built in 1858 as an official residence for the Western Australian governor, when Rottnest Island was a prison camp for Indigenous Australian men and boys, the building was converted into holiday accommodations in 1919. The hotel is about to undergo a large expansion, adding 80 rooms, a new restaurant and a function space.
The food at the Rottnest isn’t terrible by any stretch, but it follows the lowest-common-denominator formula of the modern Australian bistro: pizza, burgers, pasta and some mildly creative salads. This approach is probably smart business, given the volume and variety of tourists fed here, but it feels like a wasted opportunity.
It seems almost cruel to pick on this one place, given the ubiquity of the experience. I’ve had similar, perfectly O.K. meals all over the country, and I wish the food were as special as these formerly opulent hotels and their striking settings.
But it’s not all bad news. There are now a number of projects around the country that aim to revive the splendor of the old waterside pub, and a few in particular that are succeeding spectacularly.
In 2015 the Merivale group (which has recently been in hot water over claims that it underpaid workers) bought the waterfront Newport Arms hotel, a pub that dates to 1880, in Sydney’s northern suburbs. Its spacious tiered outdoor space allows the new owners to offer multiple experiences before you even go inside: a cafe and juice bar, a burger shack, a seafood bar and … wood-fired pizzas.
But the real star of the new Newport is Bert’s, a second-story restaurant opened in January 2018 that attempts to summon the grandeur of 1930s fine dining. The place is like some kind of beachy Gatsby fantasy, the sprawling room a vision of mossy velvet and tawny leather upholstery, cane furnishings and a semicircular wall of old paned windows looking out over the water.
The chef Jordan Toft’s menu does its best to channel a Titanic ambience: caviar served by the 50-gram, $295 serving, oysters on the half shell, handpicked crab, and John Dory with hollandaise. The food is a throwback of the best sort: nostalgic without being sentimental, a brazen fantasy of delicious proportions.
Melbourne’s most beloved and notorious beach pub has recently undergone its own rebirth. The Esplanade Hotel, affectionately known as the Espy, has lived through all the eras of its neighborhood, St Kilda. When it opened in 1878 it was a grande dame of seaside luxury; over the years, as St Kilda slid into disrepair, the Espy went with it. It became, primarily, a grotty live music venue and a place where backpackers and college students drank.
The pubs of Melbourne have been vital to the city’s live music scene. But the gentrification of those pubs in recent decades has threatened that legacy, as raucous band rooms have given way to pretty beer gardens or pokies. So it’s heartening to see the Espy undergo a major renovation, by the Melbourne hospitality group Sand Hill Road, but retain its live music room.
The Gershwin Room, in the pub’s basement, is almost exactly as it’s always been, graffiti and all. The upstairs levels are a gorgeous warren of highly designed cocktail bars, velvet banquettes, botanical wallpaper and various restaurants with their windows open to the ocean breeze, but the Gershwin Room is still pure old-school St Kilda.
It’s a brilliant compromise — just don’t try to go on a summer Saturday afternoon. The redo is so successful there’s often an hour’s wait just to get in the door.
The Newport and the Esplanade seem to be part of a larger trend. In October it was announced that the Continental Hotel in Sorrento, on the opposite side of the mouth of Port Phillip Bay from the Ozone, is getting an $80 million update.
Here’s hoping that as these projects shape up, the developers have enough imagination to deliver some of that old-fashioned seaside magic, and perhaps even a perfect porterhouse steak. Boring pizzas do not inspire lifelong memories, no matter how beautiful the view.