“I want it to be a real pub,” Guy David told us last year while he was in the midst of renovating the 141-year-old Empress Hotel in North Fitzroy. They weren’t empty words. The pub may have had a facelift, but its down-to-earth charms are wholly intact.
“We’ve got locals with kids coming in, 60-plus people that would never have come in prior, and still the young, hip kids from before,” David says. “Everyone’s happy to see the building open, and that it’s not apartments.” It probably helps that many of the building’s historic features have been retained, including the pressed-metal ceilings, red-brick bar and ceramic urinals.
“There’s also been a lot of questions about whether we’re going to have live music, mostly from local Empress diehards,” David says. Sadly, the answer is no. The roof was torn off the old bandroom to create a beer garden spanned by skinny steel trusses and strung with outdoor lights. It already has a cosy, lived-in vibe that will soothe any sad feelings about the absence of live music.
If that doesn’t work, there’s always the beer selection. There’s 15 taps in total, with one dedicated to pouring a new drop every two-to-four weeks. Permanent beers include Carlton Draught, 4 Pines Kolsch, Mountain Goat’s Steam and Summer Ales, and other easy-drinking locals. The Empress doesn’t want to alienate anyone.
The menu, by David’s sister Lucy (ex-Rosa's Kitchen, Pei Modern, Coda), sticks broadly to this theme, leaning on the pair’s Italian heritage without neglecting pub staples such as burgers, parmas and steaks. “I’ve always wanted to be involved with her in some capacity,” David says. “She’s just an awesome chef.”
The proof is in the pudding – or in this case, the parmesan custard, which the chickpea and zucchini fritters are served on. They’re an anomaly in an otherwise safe menu, where lasagne, gnocchi and simple pizzas sit alongside dishes such as calamari, or pork chops with green mango salad. There’s no table service, a fact reflected by the prices, which hover around $20 for a main. Yes, the newborn Empress is a real pub, through-and-through.