The first thing you’ll notice when you walk into Fancy Free is a giant photographic print of a stubbled man staring you down from behind the bar. The only colour: the pink filter on an unlit cigarette dangling from his mouth.

The portrait pays homage to a famous Bob Carlos Clarke portrait of chef Marco Pierre White. Fancy Free co-founder Ryan Noreiks says the team initially had a large print of Marco, but he never made it onto the wall. “We approached the photographer’s estate for licensing,” Noreiks says. “They were cool with it but wanted to do the print themselves. It was almost a week out from opening at that point, so we were shitting ourselves.”

Time was scarce, so photographer Aaron McKenzie created a self-portrait for the bar instead.

Fancy Free is the creation of Noreiks along with Rob Libecans and Matt Stirling (Chris Hysted-Adams was also part of the project but has since left), who met while working at Brunswick bar Black Pearl.

Since May 2018, Fancy Free has operated as a series of takeovers and pop-ups at cocktail bars in Australia and overseas, including Sydney’s Ramblin’ Rascal Tavern, Brisbane’s Saville Row, Fitzroy’s Drinkwell, and Dandelyan in the UK. This new Collins Street bar is the longest pop-up so far (the team has secured the site for six months), but ideally, Noreiks says they’ll find a permanent home.

The inspiration for the giant black-and-white print comes from the crew behind Sydney burger joint Mary’s, big Marco fans, who are running the kitchen for the first two months. They've even got a a signed print of the original back home.

Food-wise, Mary's is doing casual, booze-friendly food such as the Mary’s Burger: beef, cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion and Mary’s sauce, with the option to add “trashcan bacon” (bacon smoked in a clean garbage can) for $4, and double down on the meat and cheese for another $4.50. There’s also fried chicken served by the half, whole or Larry (double) bird.

When the Mary’s team leaves, the McKenzie print will be taken down and auctioned off, with proceeds going to suicide prevention organisation R U OK. The team will then need something else to replace it – likely based on whoever takes over the kitchen – because the print serves a crucial purpose: hiding the TV screens that former tenant 8Bit Burgers used for its menus. Since Fancy Free is a six-month project, the team set themselves a tight budget and repurposed a lot of the existing fittings themselves. The bar top is 8Bit’s, but using computer-game style wooden clouds that were previously suspended from the ceiling, the Fancy Free team has widened it to give drinkers room to settle in. There’s not a lot here that’s new (“If we can’t take it with us, it absolutely has to be an essential item,” Lebicans says), though some money’s been spent painting over the bright 8Bit yellow in more muted tones.

The cocktail list is broken up into three categories: No (alcohol free), Low (slightly boozier) and Full (you get the gist), with a lot of the crafting happening behind the scenes. The bar team runs a one-day prep session each week, using a range of clarification and fermentation techniques and pre-batching many of the drinks. The menu descriptions are deceptively simple by design – the team doesn’t want to intimidate people with unusual terms – but get chatting with them about the process and you’ll hear all about the care and technique that goes into each creation.

One example is the R&C, a delicate balance of whisky and pineapple-clarified milk punch. Presentation is elegant and restrained. The drink is mostly clear with a slight gold tinge (a bit like a pinot gris) and poured over a single ice cube with a Japanese maple leaf frozen inside. The ice is from Everleigh co-founder Michael Madrusan’s company Navy Strength Ice Co, and the leaves come from Lebicans’s garden. One side of the plain rocks glass is painted with a red swipe of raspberry shrub mixed with Never Never Triple Juniper Gin. It’s a cocktail that takes days to make and seconds to assemble. And it’s almost as quick to drink.

The Not section is just as interesting as the rest of the list. The Fancy Float is an iced coffee made with coconut-infused coffee, a scoop of seasonal ice-cream (for now, Messina’s pandan gelato) and tonic; the Arnold Palmie riffs on the classic cocktail, blending mango and peach tea with sherbet lemonade.

Fancy Free is refreshing in a world of speakeasy-style cocktail bars. There’s a lack of inhibition and the promise of good times here (and not a waistcoat or tweezer in sight). Despite the bespoke ice, clarified milk and city location, Noreiks says the three owners want this spot to feel like a neighbourhood bar. And while the space isn’t the cosiest – huge curved perspex windows overlook an outdoor food court, and there are plastic chairs and tables in the back dining area – the bar up front is immediately welcoming. The staff are animated. An inflatable flamingo coaster might land with your beer (there are four Stomping Ground brews on tap, while a fifth pours cocktails made from donated or leftover bar ingredients, with proceeds going to R U OK), and wines rotate, with low intervention producers such as Ochoto and Gentle Folk on show. You can’t help but smile seeing Stirling’s grinning face on the label of a bottled “Pet Not” cocktail (bourbon, apple, strawberry, plum kombucha), and you’ll likely find the man himself behind the bar in a cartoonish apron that asks, “Wottel it be?”

Takeovers are in the works too: expect international cocktail crews such as Two Schmucks (a self-proclaimed “five star dive bar” from Barcelona) and London’s Dandelyan (currently #1 on the World's 50 Best Bars list) to settle into Fancy Free to run things for a night or two in the coming weeks.

Fancy Free
381 Little Collins Street, Melbourne

Mon to Sat 11am–11pm