It’s a bold move to open a live-performance venue during a pandemic. But the team behind Brunswick Ballroom, which opens for its first gig tonight, isn’t daunted. Instead, they’re excited to show off what they’ve been pouring their hearts and souls into.

“Yeah, it’s a bit of a crazy time to do it, but it’s a marvellous building and a brilliant opportunity – so why not?” says director Will Ewing with a laugh.

The Sydney Road building it now inhabits has had a long, colourful history. It’s been a hat factory, a French restaurant and a nightclub, but most recently it was home to live-music venue The Spotted Mallard. But since taking over the lease in late 2020, the new proprietors have been working nonstop to reimagine and refurbish the majestic Brunswick venue.

“We got in there at the start of November and really we haven’t stopped,” Ewing says. “What we’ve done is – rather than add any clutter to it – [we’ve] stripped it back and restored it to its former glory.” The team drew inspiration from Prahran’s Continental Cafe, which was a music institution in the ’90s.

In the dramatic first-storey ballroom, existing features – including striking skylight domes with stained-glass designs – still take pride of place. “At the right time of day, when sun hits through those glass panes, it just puts a really gorgeous pattern on the shiny, glossed parquetry floor,” says Ewing.

But the room, which can hold 290 people, now also has plush red-velvet curtains, black textured wallpaper and a glistening centrepiece grand piano. An inclinator has also been installed on the staircase to maximise accessibility.

Ewing, who’s also a musician and actor, had been performing with John Farnham’s band when Covid hit. Meanwhile, theatre producer and concert promoter Andrew Kay – the father of Ewing’s partner – was thinking about setting up a performance space of his own. So when the building became available, the pair decided to go all in.

Billing it simply as a “performance” venue was intentional. “We’re not going to pigeonhole ourselves in any one genre,” say Ewing. “When I say [the program is] eclectic, it really is – it’s not genres, it’s different forms of art and entertainment.”

The program runs the gauntlet from music to cabaret to comedy and beyond. The opening gala, on both March 4 and 5, will be hosted by triple-threat Eddie Perfect (Offspring) and actor, writer and comedian Margot Tanjutco (associate director of Benjamin Law’s Torch the Place). There’ll also be a recital by David Helfgott, the pianist whose story inspired the Academy Award-winning 1996 film Shine; performances by Kate Ceberano and Tim Rogers; a score of shows for the Melbourne International Comedy Festival (including one by beloved musical-comedy outfit Tripod); and a handful of gigs as part of Brunswick Music Festival.

For almost every performance there’s a dinner-and-a-show option, with a menu designed by chef Tori Bicknell (ex-St Ali head chef). Expect slow-roasted beef brisket, crisp-skinned salmon, and pork-and-sage meatball rigatoni. And on the snackier side: warm salted pretzels; thick-cut fries with French-onion salt; and no-frills $8 garlic bread wrapped in foil and served in a cane basket.

Launching just one new venue in a three-month period is a mammoth task in and of itself, but the Brunswick Ballroom team has also opened the Brunswick Artists’ Bar downstairs. It too has a focus on live performance, but the roster – which includes standup comedy, sets from local DJs and musos, and trivia nights – is more low-key. “I explain it as a country pub on Sydney Road,” Ewing says. “It’s just a bit of a little local with some wonderful cocktails.”

Find the full Brunswick Ballroom program and buy tickets here.

Brunswick Ballroom and Brunswick Artists’ Bar
314–316 Sydney Road, Brunswick