Heading down Moreland Road it’s easy to miss the Moreland Hotel, an aging pokies pub on the corner of Sydney Road in Brunswick. Aside from the enduring promise of bargain pub meals, there’s not much on the north facade to tempt you. But if you’re approaching from the west, a double-take-inducing doorway shaped like the Arc de Triomphe might sway you.
Like most pubs in the area the Moreland pours beers, serves parmas and I’ve been kicked out of it. But the point of difference from its 19th-century neighbours is a 250-seat dining room that’s more first-century than your standard sticky-carpet situation.
The kids play area is built inside a replica Colosseum. The domed ceiling is painted like a summer’s day sky and there’s enough fake marble to rival a bathroom showroom. A commanding columned balcony on the south wall provides a roof for the function space below. And at the centre of it all is Michelangelo’s statue of David.
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“People don’t realise this is what it looks like,” says Hayley Jewell, a staff member at the hotel. The majority of unsuspecting walk-ins are shocked. “I get a, ‘Wow!’ or a, ‘What the fuck?’ mostly.”
The Moreland has always been popular with locals, especially families, and still is. Brunswick’s Hotels, a local-history booklet last updated in 1999, says even in the ’90s the pub had patrons who’d been drinking there for more than 50 years and “whose fathers drank there before them”. Built in 1889, it’s the youngest of Brunswick’s 23 old-school watering holes, and was originally three storeys. In 1913 it was knocked down and rebuilt to just two.
The genesis of the dining room, though, is a mystery to many. Even current staff.
“A footballer tried to turn it into a nightclub,” a friend tells me, convincingly. Certainly, rumours of early 2000s thunder and lightning-style light shows support the theory.
But the truth is simpler: Vegas, baby.
The Moreland Hotel is run by Australian Leisure and Hospitality Group (ALH), a Woolworths-backed giant that owns more than 300 pubs across the country. Founder Bruce Mathieson – one of Australia’s wealthiest people – today holds a 25 per cent stake in the company, and his son Bruce Junior is the CEO.
As the story goes, the Mathiesons took a trip to Vegas sometime in the ’90s. When they returned, it was with a plan to replicate some of that casino magic, right here in Melbourne. This is a pokies venue, after all.
“The theming of hotels at that time was a bit of a fad,” says Kon Karakolis, the chief architect and designer on the renovation, which began in 1998. At the time he worked for Lex Carter Architects, and says the inspiration came from the Forum shopping centre, part of the Caesar’s Palace casino complex in Nevada.
The Forum, or “The Shopping Wonder of the World”, is known for its lavish ancient-Rome-themed fit-out and hourly Fall of Atlantis shows – animatronic displays of fire, water, lights and nine-foot talking statues.
Karakolis worked with a company that built theatre sets to mimic the mall’s grandeur in miniature. Each feature is made from plastic-coated polystyrene and artists were hired to paint them to an “authentic finish”. The external features, such as the archway, are polystyrene, too, but sand-rendered to give a “weathered-stone feel”.
Management chose the Grecian lettering out front – which spells out “The Moreland” – deliberately. They liked how it looked, even if it doesn’t necessarily match the Roman interior.
And the light shows? The renovation predates LEDs, but the roof is rigged with fibre optics that can be set with a timer to change colour and create different effects – but they haven’t been tested in a while. “I can’t remember what we set it to at the time, maybe four or five changes in the day,” Karakolis says.
Nailing the feel took a while. A whole year, in fact. Getting the curvature of the ceiling right was no mean feat. But the finished product was worth it, Karakolis says. “It was quite a feature for people around there – it was very different – and gave them a bit of Vegas in Sydney Road, Brunswick,” he says.
Even now, punters still pop in for a gander, or to take a cheeky selfie with Dave the statue. In March, the Moreland also hosted gigs for the Brunswick Music Festival, bringing in a new, younger clientele.
“I had someone say the other day, ‘We just googled it and the inside made me want to come and have a look’,” Jewell says. “Some people are like, ‘Oh my God this is great’, and others think it’s the weirdest thing they’ve seen in their entire lives.”
One word of parting advice, based on personal experience: don’t attempt to scale the balcony, lest you get booted back to the 21st century, aka Sydney Road.
The Moreland Hotel
Corner Sydney and Moreland Roads, Brunswick
(03) 9386 3748
This story originally appeared in Melbourne Print Issue 27.