“I’ve got a massive interest in everything American,” says Jon Di Pinto. The Cry Baby owner is about to launch two new bars on Gilbert Place – and both lean heavily on nostalgia for the American South.
Above ground, Western-style watering hole Shotgun Willie’s (more on that here) is opening in the former Red October site. Below – in the old Suzie Wong space – is basement bar Memphis Slim’s House of Blues. “[Upstairs is] country and western, Wild West sort of vibes,” says Di Pinto. “Down here is more a delta blues, Chicago blues bar. It’ll be more cocktail-oriented as well.”
The two new venues have separate entrances – while Suzie Wong was a hidden bar accessible only via Red October, the Memphis Slim’s entrance is at ground level on Gilbert Place. Descend the stairs to find a moody basement bar presided over by former Maybe Mae bartender Michael Keogh (who met Di Pinto when the pair were working at Bank Street Social). While Shotgun Willie’s looks set to continue the rollicking dive-bar vibe of Cry Baby, Memphis Slim’s is something a little more sophisticated.
“I think we’ll be hitting a different demographic from Cry Baby,” says Di Pinto. “Cry Baby is amazing, I love it … But it’s also nice to do something that’s a little more mature.”
Di Pinto and co-owners Sean Howard and Matt Blyth all agree getting Keogh on board has “set the tone for the venue”.
“We’ve got a bit of a reputation coming from Cry Baby and we knew we were going to be kind of fighting against that to really generate a new image for these bars,” says Howard. “But anyone who knows where Mike’s been will recognise that this isn’t another Cry Baby … having him on board instantly shows people this isn’t the same thing.”
Keogh will be riffing on classic American cocktails; the opening menu includes a Raspberry Mint Julep; Fig Clover Club with gin, rose vermouth, fig jam, lemon and egg white; Cherry Crusta with brandy, orange curacao, maraschino, dark cherry and lemon; and Treacle, a twist on an Old-Fashioned with a house blend of rums, overproof rum (rum with a higher ABV), pear and vanilla.
“This is about being fun and accessible,” says Keogh. “Just tasty drinks with a fair amount of technique and polish behind them, but still really approachable.” There’ll also be around 30 old-world wines (from France and Italy mostly) and some bottled beers.
Next to the bar is a pool room, flanked by rows of giant timber slabs repurposed from the Outer Harbour Railway Line. “They weigh 100 kilograms each and we carried them down here,” says Di Pinto. “I was so hungover when we did it, I think I vomited twice.”
The team built the jarrah bar and tables themselves. The tables and stage (which will be the setting for local blues and jazz acts) were fabricated from materials from the old Prince Alfred College basketball court.
The venue’s DIY fit-out and commitment to 20th-century nostalgia is a perfect match for the heritage building known as Quelltaler House. “The building has so much character,” says Di Pinto. “There’s a bunch of cool history on it.” Before it was Red October it was Malaysian and Chinese restaurant Penang, and before that, it was Arkaba Steak Cellars. “My dad keeps telling me … it was where all the suits went and had oysters and steaks,” says Di Pinto.
It’s a history that’s quite literally still in the walls. “We moved a bunch of tables out of the storeroom and they say Arkaba Steak [Cellars] on them,” says Di Pinto. “These stone walls have been patched up with brick and there’s stuff melting onto them – it’s wild,” he adds, laughing. He admits there are some downsides to the charming site. “You get the character, but then you also get 100-year-old plumbing.”
The team plans to use the “dynamic” venue to also host whisky dinners, tastings and industry events. “We’ll be able to do lots of cool stuff around the appreciation of good booze,” says Howard.
Memphis Slim’s House of Blues opens on Friday February 12.