It’s a throwback to a bygone era; the days of speakeasies and jazz dens. A pianist in the middle of the room, lit by candlelight and a chandelier from above, plays with hands wriggling and rolling across the keys of a baby grand.

Ragtime Tavern owner Andrew Bianco says it’s a shame pianos have been hidden away over the years, relegated to an electronic keyboard at the back of a room, or to the side of or behind the rest of the band. So instead Bianco designed and built a bar around a baby grand, a commanding presence in the centre of the small room.

It’s surprising to learn, though, that Bianco doesn’t play. Still, the former owner of High Street bar The Thornbury Local says making music the focus just made sense to him. His old bar had an emphasis on live music but took a different approach: the tunes usually much louder, the bands with more musicians.

“I wanted something that would be a little bit more low-key, relaxed,” Bianco says. “One instrument. Maybe two. Not as amplified.”

Internationally renowned names including boogie-woogie pianist Ezra Lee and blues pianist Damon Smith have stopped in to play the beautiful 30-year-old instrument, a Royale from Gray’s Piano World in Preston.

On weekends there are scheduled gigs, sometimes with a singer, and Thursday nights are dedicated Open Piano evenings (though Bianco says guests are welcome to play on other nights too). Some of the bar staff are pianists, regularly performing mid-shift, and Bianco will jump behind the bar if things get too busy. It’s all in the name of atmosphere. And every performance is free, whether it’s an amateur off the street or a big name behind the keys.

“If you start putting door charges on everything, then before you know it nobody's watching music, and nobody is playing anywhere,” Bianco says. “It’s all about lifestyle for me. I work part-time [as a social worker] so I can support the bar. It’s one of these ventures where it’s not just about earning a living, but earning a living doing something I love.”

Decor in the main bar is heavy on the curves, from the bar top circling the piano, to the shelves behind the bar. The circular theme also applies to the piano, which rotates 360 degrees, albeit slowly (Bianco currently operates the mechanism by hand), giving everyone a great view. A motor will be installed in the next week or two.

A second old grand piano – one that’s been taken apart – has had its parts stuck in-between antique light fittings on the walls. In the back room it’s a mishmash of couches, artwork and antique mirrors recovered from op shops over the years.

Drinks are simple. A few wines from the Barossa and McLaren Vale, Hawkers Beer and Two Birds on tap, basic spirits, and a couple of cocktails. As he gets more established, Bianco has plans to grow the whisky side of things, but for now he’s building the bar program up slowly.

To eat, order from the diner next door, This Borderland, where everything – including the fried-chicken burger with apple slaw, aged cheddar and chipotle mayo; the three-cheese poutine (a Canadian dish of fries, cheese curds and gravy); and the cherry pie – can be made vegan.

Ragtime Tavern
206 Tyler Street, Preston

Wed to Sun 6pm–11pm

This article was first published on June 20, 2019. Some details may have changed since publication.