It was 2006, John Howard was blissfully unaware of Kevin ’07, Eskimo Joe looked poised for international stardom, and I was wearing enormous shorts and a fedora, working behind the bar at Prince Public Bar in St Kilda.

The air was thick with cigarette smoke and the carpets with spilled beer, and on a Monday night there’d be a line around the corner for The Prince’s famous $1 pots. It was relentless, and I loved it.

When a bar that holds a special place in a lot of hearts gets a revamp, people understandably get nervous. In prime position on the corner of Acland and Fitzroy streets, the ground-level bar is one part of the stately Prince of Wales Hotel, which includes a bandroom, boutique hotel and contemporary diner.

No sunny day was better spent than sitting out the front with a cold beer, watching commuters get off the tram headed for the beach for the day. But over the last decade the place lost its shine.

“It just wasn’t working,” says Andrew Ryan, managing director at the Prince of Wales Hotel. “It was tired. There was patronage, but not like it was.”

Along with Iva Foschia of IF Architecture (Prince Dining Room, Cutler & Co, Sparkke at the Vine), the team took inspiration from original architect RH McIntyre’s plans from 1936, when the hotel was rebuilt in art deco style, with a brief to “respect, and restore” the old pub.

“We want new generations to look back on the venue in 30 years and think we did a good job of it,” Ryan says. “It’s a strong, proud building and we wanted it to have its self-esteem.”

From the outside, the building’s iconic rounded edges remain, as does the classic deco-era signage. There’s bench seating and jet-black tiling along one wall. Inside, expect plenty of pine furniture, soft grey-and-white tones and natural light.

A recently rediscovered stairwell now connects the public bar to the building’s main foyer; areas that have been separated for decades. The ceiling, hidden under layers of dense soundproofing that were added over the years, has been uncovered and restored. The grand oval island bar is now in the middle of the room, a centrepiece. In place of the pride flag that once decorated the saloon bar, the oval bar is crowned with dichroic glass imported from Germany that’ll light up with rainbow colours.

There are 30 taps pouring Heineken, Kirin and Furphy, and a host of local craft offerings including Stomping Ground’s tart and fruity Watermelon Smash, and a red ale from Brick Lane, a chewier option with caramel notes. Wines by the glass include a clean, creamy prosecco from Freeman Vineyards, a family-run winery that specialises in northern Italian grape varieties. The by-the-bottle list is mostly local drops with the occasional Euro cameo.

Food was never front-and-centre at the old Prince, but now you can expect refined pub classics from chefs Dan Hawkins and Dan Cooper, who also look after the dining room upstairs.

Start with house-made sausage rolls, ham and Gruyere croquettes or grilled tiger prawns, then move onto counter meals such as burgers, fish‘n’chips, schnitzels, or Wagyu sausages on soft polenta. Pasture-fed porterhouse and hanger steaks are cooked on a woodfired grill, served with chips, watercress and red-wine sauce, or you can go big with a 700-gram bistecca T-bone for two.

Prince Public Bar
29 Fitzroy Street, St Kilda
(03) 9536 1168

Hours:
Mon to Fri 5pm–10.30pm
Sat & Sun 12pm–12am

theprince.com.au

This article first appeared on Broadsheet on January 20, 202. Menu items may have changed since publication.