“33 Russell Street is a truly impressive and historic site and one of Melbourne’s most beautiful rooms. Opportunities like this are a rare find and when they come along it’s really exciting. The room deserves to be celebrated,” chef and restaurateur Andrew McConnell said when he first nabbed Cavendish House, the elegant building that now holds his award-winning restaurant Gimlet.
Apollo Inn, he and partner Jo McGann’s new 30-seat cocktail bar 50 metres up Flinders Lane, opens on Tuesday next week and further honours the site’s history – in name and in old-world spirit.
“We went to the [State] Library and dug a bit deeper and found some information about the initial building on that site, which was the Apollo Inn,” McConnell tells Broadsheet. “It was a bluestone building demolished in the early 1900s and replaced with Cavendish House. I really liked the name but more importantly, I really liked the history of the site and the fact it’s been a hospitality venue … for so many years.”
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Gimlet bar manager Cameron Parish is moving across. He’ll be mixing a number of signature cocktails including the Lucien Gaudin featuring gin, Campari, dry vermouth and Grand Marnier; and the Picon Biere, herbaceous house-made amaro paired with crisp French lager (McConnell recommends this as a go-to). Four types of Martini are also on the menu: Dry, Dirty, Cafe and Gibson. The latter was invented right around the time the original Apollo Inn was demolished. The team’s put particular effort into nailing these classics.
“Over the last year we’ve had so many tastings,” McConnell says. “I wouldn’t say arduous, but it’s been a long process that Cam and his team have been working on. It’s not about reinventing the wheel – it’s about perfecting the classics, which sits well with a bar that references an inn. He’s really raised the bar, which is difficult to do for what’s already a perfect cocktail. But I think he’s refined them to a place where he’s created, for me anyway, a benchmark.”
Trader House’s beverage director, Leanne Altmann, has assembled a concise list of wines by the bottle and glass specifically for Apollo Inn, but guests will also have access to Gimlet’s 300-bottle cellar.
And it wouldn’t be a McConnell venture without excellent food. There’s no real kitchen here, but about 10 small dishes by head chef Colin Mainds and McConnell himself will be available daily.
“The same amount of attention and detail is going to the food as what’s going to the bar. It’s just small, seasonal, what’s good,” McConnell says. “You could feel yourself sated, but don’t call it dinner.
“You might see a prawn cocktail one day and maybe not the next.”
He also mentions scallops, oysters, beef carpaccio, spicy soppressata salami on toast (“it’s a cracker”) and a prawn and spanner crab club sandwich. There will always be dessert, too. The current pick, crème caramel, will stick around for a few months, unlike the savoury dishes.
“I say that, but I’m also pretty fond of the profiterole with ice-cream and chocolate sauce,” McConnell says. “We can’t help ourselves – things will evolve. I think that’s what I really love about the bar, it feels like the natural evolution of Gimlet.“
The bar occupies the ground floor of McDonald House – a neo-Renaissance style building dating to 1924. McConnell and McGann worked with Acme, the same design firm behind Gimlet, to bring Apollo Inn to life.
There’s lots of cosy seating, low lighting and warm timber panelling, plus paintings by Australian artists including Tony Clark, Stieg Persson, John Nixon and Leanne Xiu Williams, sourced with help from neighbour Anna Schwartz Gallery.
Walk-ins are encouraged, as are conversations with Parish and his bartenders about whipping up an off-menu drink to pair with whatever mood you happen to be in.
“What I like about the bar is, usually a restaurant is used for one purpose – and that’s to come and dine. A bar can be used, and is always used, for many different reasons – a meeting, a date, a quick snack, something after the show, something to get me through a show. It’s got a great lounge-y vibe that lends itself to many different situations.”
“There’s virtually no rules, unlike in a restaurant ... And that’s what’s exciting.”
Apollo Inn opens at 5pm on June 13.
165 Flinders Lane, Melbourne
(03) 9277 9727
Additional reporting by Katya Wachtel.