St Kilda is a kaleidoscope. Turn one way, it’s a pretty, palm-tree lined beach suburb designed for daytripping families, picking sand out of ice-cream cones and throwing up on the rollercoaster. Turn another, you’ll see fancy cars parked outside fine diners and Maseratis shooting through intersections at warp speed. Turn again, and it’s a skeezy underworld where petty crims nurse their pots and others scan for a fix.
Over the years, the Prince of Wales has embodied the protean character of St Kilda in a single building, somehow absorbing these many personalities into one cohesive body.
On the top storey, Prince of Wales ran the kind of boutique hotel where Sting might wander through the lobby. Just below, Circa’s kitchens were staffed by a brigade of chefs who were arguably the best in the country. In the bandroom, indie kids gathered for sludge-metal or minimal tech, and hordes of uni students flooded the place on Saturday nights to dance to house anthems until sunrise. On the bottom, it was an Australian pub at its most democratic, with old rockers and veterans of the queer scene perched on bar stools, pint in hand, talking about the good old days. And below ground, there was Mink Bar: a decadent, velvet-boothed vodka den host to the glamourous crowd, and at least once, The Rolling Stones.
All of this was by design, and the credit belongs in no small share to Frank and John Van Haandel, who took over and reimagined the Art Deco-era hotel in 1999. In 2007 John and his wife Lisa assumed control, before selling The Prince to businessman Gerry Ryan four years later.
Today Ryan and his son Andy are behind an ambitious overhaul that signals a new era for one of the city’s most storied gathering places. Circa is gone, making way for a light-filled, approachable new all-day diner. A gastropub will replace the front bar. And the boutique hotel has reopened after a fresh, contemporary refit that's better suited to the beachside surrounds. In fact, the only facet of the old Prince Hotel that's staying put is the beloved Prince Band Room, which was recently refurbished to refocus entirely on its function as a live-music space.
“It was time to turn the leaf over and embark on a whole new challenge,” says Reg Lodewyke, The Prince Hotel group’s general manager. “With the entire complex and, in turn, with St Kilda as well.”
The hottest reservation in town
When the Van Haandels moved in almost 20 years ago, the Prince was a famously rough drinking hole. In its place, they envisioned a space that didn’t smooth the edges of the suburb but accentuated those differences across the entire hotel.
“St Kilda back in those days was a little bit bohemian, a little bit risqué. It was about coming into this bloodbath hotel where Chopper Read used to drink and people used to throw themselves out the windows, and there were prostitutes and taxi drivers staying there, backpackers,” recalls Frank Van Haandel. “[We set out] to make something uniquely different, where we had an Italian bakery, and a vodka bar; we continued with the gay bar and the corner saloon bar. But when you went into the main foyer of the hotel, it had the wow factor. John and I did not compromise on the quality of the materials used, or the design and the workmanship. I think that it’s fair to say that we tried to bring something to St Kilda that hadn’t been there for a long time.”
The brothers brought across their head chef from the original Stokehouse, Michael Lambie, to put together an upmarket menu for their new restaurant, Circa. “We wanted to bring fine dining to St Kilda,” says Van Haandel. “We were told in no uncertain terms that was just a fucked idea. That it’d never work.”
But it did work, and soon enough Circa was the hottest reservation in town. Over the 20 years it remained in operation, Circa deservedly gained a reputation as an incubator for top hospitality talent. Chef Andrew McConnell – the man behind many of Melbourne’s most acclaimed restaurants – was brought on as Circa’s second head chef in 2002, and he, in turn, employed a young man named Ben Shewry to run the breakfast shift.
“It was groundbreaking,” says McConnell. “It was a really dynamic situation with the hotel, a beautiful dining room, classic building, in an iconic location. At the time it was very exciting. And St Kilda was as well.”
David Moyle (latterly of Franklin and Longsong), earned his first head chef role working at Circa under the Van Haandels. What typified the Prince of Wales was, for Moyle, the commitment and talent of everyone involved. “There was a really great professional culture there. Everybody in that building [was a] lifer,” he says. “It felt like everyone was there not just to get a wage and go home and watch TV. They were involved purely for the love of the industry.”
That creative, industrious culture wasn’t confined to Circa and the restaurant scene; during the late ’90s and early 2000s the whole suburb was suffused with a restless energy. Much like Collingwood and Fitzroy today, St Kilda was seen as an artistic hub “full of writers and musos, painters, even filmmakers that were doing it tough” says Van Haandel. “It was pretty in your face. And that’s why people gravitated to St Kilda. You expect the unexpected, and no one was shocked by what they saw.”
Architect Iva Foschia worked at the Prince of Wales during that period, at first collecting the mail or confirming bookings, then later with Frank Van Haandel in his design office, Liquid Lines. She remembers St Kilda as a proud and independent place. “St Kilda was definitely like that when I worked there,” she says. “It was very tribal. Melbourne’s not like that. You know how Sydney is very tribal, and everyone sticks within their suburb or group? I feel like St Kilda has that, which is unusual for Melbourne.”
At some point, though, the energy slipped away. Music venues slowly closed, and the arts crowd and edgy restaurateurs filtered into the north. Fitzroy Street, once a hive of activity, became dotted with vacant shops. In 2011, the Van Haandel Group sold the Prince to the Ryan family and what was then the Melbourne Pub Group (now trading solely as The Prince Hotel).
“I don't think St Kilda has changed too much over the last five to 10 years, which is probably what the issue is,” says Lodewyke. “It has been in a bit of a form slump.”
Grime and green shoots
“When I think about Fitzroy Street, I think it’s a classic case where for too long it’s been focused on the tourism industry, and that’s just not sustainable,” says Bernadene Voss, the mayor of Port Phillip. She blames St Kilda’s emphasis on backpackers and out-of-towners for that, believing that many businesses began at some point catering for visitors as opposed to residents. “You’ve got a lot of bars; it’s a night-time economy. Therefore you’ve got all sorts of things in there that don’t suit the local community.”
Frank Van Haandel, who remains a prominent tenant through the recently re-built Stokehouse, agrees that the suburb has fallen on hard times. “St Kilda at the moment is a bit sad. I don’t like seeing the empty shops,” he says. According to Voss, there are currently 22 commercial vacancies on Fitzroy Street.
“At the moment there are so many shops begging for quality operators... If there are any young talented chefs out there who want to try, they could probably walk into any shop on Fitzroy Street now and create something quite unique, as Ronnie Di Stasio did in those pretty risqué times,” Van Haandel says, referring to the unofficial mayor of St Kilda and owner of eponymous Italian restaurant Café Di Stasio, which opened in 1988. Di Stasio told Broadsheet in 2014 that what attracted him to St Kilda in the first place was, “the broken glass, the graffiti, the misfits”.
Van Haandel agrees that there’s something magnetic about this bohemian grime – an aura that not only draws in capital-c creatives, but their hangers-on and attendants. “It’s happened in Berlin; it’s happened in Smith Street,” says Van Haandel. “It’s those cheap rents that might bring [back] your more creative, artistic type people, which I’d love to see.”
Some consider the closure of the Gatwick Private Hotel – portrayed by many as a crime-infested flophouse, and others as an essential service for the under-privileged – as a step in the right direction. (In what could almost pass for a parody of urban gentrification, Channel 9 has bought the Gatwick to use in its ubiquitous renovation fantasy, The Block). “With the Gatwick closing, people are feeling safer,” says Mayor Voss. “There’s an appetite for renewal.”
That's the case for St Kilda resident Sophie Maguire, who sees the area of Fitzroy Street between Grey Street and Jacka Boulevard – where The Gatwick was located – as one of the suburb's most hard-hit sections. But just 600 metres away, she points out, is a totally different Fitzroy Street – the one with stylish eateries such as Milk the Cow, Fitzrovia and Baker D. Chirico.
“St Kilda has the wealthiest of the wealthy and the poorest of the poor,” Maguire says. “There are many pockets I avoid, even in daylight.”
But “it does feel like St Kilda could be on its way to a revival,” she adds. The new Stokehouse precinct has been important in that respect, she says, bringing people back to the area. A rejuvenated Prince of Wales and Espy are further harbingers.
“I feel like everyone has a soft spot for St Kilda,” Maguire says. “And people who live here do so because they love it – the grime and the diversity. If you buy or rent in St Kilda, you know what you're in for.”
Dan Hawkins, who served as the last head chef at Circa and who will be the head chef at its replacement, has been working in the area for the past 10 years – first at Stokehouse and then at various restaurants in the Melbourne Pub Group portfolio. “The Gatwick was a big down driver,” he says. “Ever since The Block bought out the Gatwick, and that halfway house closed down, that’s tidied up the area. A lot of the clubs have changed to sports bars and are putting TVs in their windows. Once that scunginess has cleaned up, which is what’s happening now, we’ll see good things.”
There are other green shoots. The recently announced Pride Centre on Fitzroy Street, with a design by Grant Amon Architects and Brearley Architects, will be a significant new development that will include theatres, libraries and galleries, as well as health services and cultural spaces. And the famous Esplanade Hotel, which closed in 2015, will begin trading again in November, around the same time the Prince of Wales is scheduled to reopen.
It’s also telling that even through its ups and downs, St Kilda has remained home to some of Melbourne’s finest, longest-running food institutions: Di Stasio, Stokehouse, and Donovans still draw crowds from all over the city. On Acland Street, chain stores such as Cotton On and Hairhouse Warehouse have moved in, beloved Cafe Scheherazade is gone, but stalwarts including Monarch Cakes and Ciccolina remain. Sandra Foti, the owner of Piccolina Gelateria, decided to open her third outpost on the street this month because she loves “its village feel”.
A new era for the enduring Prince
Upstairs, the boutique hotel portion of the business has already undergone a major revamp, overseen by interior designer Megan Hounslow and architect Melanie Beynon. Its 38 breezy rooms now pay tribute to the pale, sunny hues of the St Kilda esplanade (blush concrete, grassy greens), Miami-style Art Deco, and candy coloured ice-cream. They're filled with specially-commissioned photographs by Tom Blachford and Kate Ballis, luxe brass pendant lights, and custom furniture by local and international makers.
On the ground floor, meanwhile, “the bloodbath” front bar will disappear and be replaced by a meat-focused gastropub. And, perhaps most significantly, Circa has closed forever; a new pan-Mediterranean restaurant named Prince Dining Room is taking its place.
Lodewyke says part of the reason Circa wasn’t working in the end was that its reputation for top-tier fine dining was out of step with what diners wanted. “Fine dining has certainly softened in the last few years. A lot of your top chefs are even starting to veer away from it a little bit.”
A more casual diner suits the current Prince team; chef Hawkins feels customers have an appetite for good food but the desire for “fancy surroundings and the polished service” has evaporated.
“Before we closed Circa … we had a banner over us that we were occasion dining,” he says. “It had to be somebody’s birthday or something special to come.”
The general strategy now is to make the Prince a place punters come once a week, not once a year, by offering high-quality casual food in a casual environment. Dishes might include wood-grilled calamari or lamb tagine or peas with asparagus and preserved lemon.
Meanwhile, the aesthetic reinvention of the new Prince of Wales promises to pay as much attention to the suburb’s past as it does its future. In a poetic act of symmetry, Foschia, who worked in the Prince at the beginning of her career, will be handling the design of the hospitality spaces through her architectural firm, IF Architecture.
“It’s almost like coming home for me,” she says. “It is an institution, and the renovation that was done in the late ’90s – that made it the Prince that we know – was done so well and made such a mark on St Kilda and Melbourne, this next phase – it’s a bit of an undertaking.”
Her vision is to fuse all the disparate elements that make St Kilda so interesting – its roughness and polish at the same time. “It’s not about having things perfect,” she says. “For the new space to become iconic, it needed to find its own voice, and its own reasons for being.
A bar will be hewn from blackened steel, in a custom-designed ellipse shape. Tables will be a combination of Italian marble, onyx, and American oak. There'll be original hardwood flooring, wall tiles from Italy, and terrazzo in the courtyard.
“I think it’s about having things juxtapose against one another like St Kilda does. It’s that crux where it isn’t perfect; it’s not about everything being beautiful and refined, you have this lovely paradox.”
However the redesign works out, the Prince of Wales team already has a crowd in its corner. Mayor Voss believes that venues that explicitly cater to locals, seven days a week – as the Prince is attempting to do – are the ones that’ll find success. “It’s about being locally loved. There are a lot of restaurants along there that are locally loved already. But we need more of that,” she says. “We need more of the ice-cream shops, the places that make artisan bread. You need things that the locals are going to want to go to, because what tourists want to do, in my opinion, is experience the local.”
Andrew McConnell has gotten to know the suburb well over the years through his Fitzroy Street restaurants Golden Fields, Luxembourg (now closed) and Supernormal Canteen, and his sleek Barkly Street butchery Meatsmith. “I’ve always loved St Kilda,” he says. “Yeah, there are some empty tenancies, but there are empty tenancies everywhere. I think there’s an ebb and flow. It’s been 20 years since St Kilda became a hub for food and bars. It’s time for it to evolve a little bit, and that’s what’s happening. I’d like to think that as it moves into its next phase, there’ll be another renaissance. I’ve never given up on St Kilda, and I think it’s still got a lot more potential to realise.”
And the Prince, as it always has been, remains emblematic of that potential.
“I think for us it was really about shifting the mentality for, not just Circa, but for the entire property – the whole of the Prince complex. And you can even go as far as saying St Kilda,” Lodewyke says.
If anyone has reason to shed a tear for Circa’s closure, it’s Frank Van Haandel. But he’s 100 per cent behind the property’s next iteration. “I had a very sentimental response, but I just want it to be the best that it can be,” he says. “I like the Ryan family, and so I think it’s a really positive change that’s coming. I certainly welcome it, because I think that along with the Espy and the Gatwick … they are some really positive moves. I think that’s the start of the resurgence of St Kilda.”