Ben O’Donoghue wasn’t looking to launch a burger joint. Not in 2015, anyway.
Back then the focus was the newly opened Billykart West End, a follow-up to the original Billykart Kitchen, which was a collaboration between the celebrity chef and general manager Ben Roberts. But while West End imported O’Donoghue’s skill for turning seasonal and local produce into elevated brunches and lunches, it was a new menu item – a relatively straightforward cheeseburger – that was the unlikely hit.
This was the time of Brisbane’s burger boom. Ben’s Burgers was already known for flipping the best burgs in the city, while other operators such as Charboys, Red Hook, Ze Pickle, Miss Kay’s and Getta Burger were quickly establishing their own fan bases. Where to get the best bread, meat and cheese became a blogged-about discussion, with Billykart West End a surprise contender for the crown.
“It was just the timing,” Roberts says. “It’s a really good cheeseburger and suddenly we were in articles listing us among the best burgers in Brisbane … It became this thing we couldn’t take off the menu.”
It makes sense. If O’Donoghue is all about getting out of the way of his produce, then a cheeseburger is perhaps the ultimate example of this lack of pretence. Billykart was building its burger patties from brisket, rump and dry-aged chuck steak that’s ground on-site. The accompanying milk bun was baked to O’Donoghue’s specifications. Otherwise, it was a slice of American burger cheese, with everything else prepared in-house.
Billykart has been trying to manage the popularity of this humble little burg ever since. At one point, Roberts and O’Donoghue turned their Billykart Provisions side operation into Billykart Bar to accommodate the demand. But when Da’Burger’s West End outlet, just across the road from Billykart, closed in November last year, there was an opportunity to finally do the idea justice.
Enter Bender’s Bar, which opened last week peddling five burgers and a short menu of sides, such as hot wings and beer-battered onion rings. Beyond the cheeseburger, there’s a chicken “sando” with bacon and ranch dressing, a fish burger built on crumbed flathead, and a vegan number with a spiced cauliflower steak and nut aioli. For drinks, there are 10 tap beers and ciders, a punchy wine list and a clutch of spirits.
And that’s about it. Bender’s takes what made Billykart Bar such a popular hole-in-the-wall among workers in the area, but scales it up with its own personality. The branding comes from a nickname bestowed on O’Donoghue by Jamie Oliver during their time working together in London in the mid ’90s.
“Originally, we intended it to be a pop-up,” Roberts says. “Just to activate the space. But [developer and Bender’s Bar landlord] Aria convinced us to make it more permanent … It provided us with an opportunity to separate that part of the business and give it some breathing space.”
Much of the fit-out from the venue’s Copperface Jacks days remains, but a fresh coat of white paint and the pink neon Bender’s sign brightens up the space and gives it a much more approachable feel. The final result feels like a new neighbourhood pub for the apartment and office blocks clustered around the intersection of Boundary and Melbourne streets.
“It hurt us not having something [across from Billykart],” Roberts says. “We can control and differentiate it and attract a different customer into area – basically, create our own small hub for the suburb.”
56 Boundary Street, South Brisbane
Wed to Sun 12pm–late