In recent times, we have seen the nascence of a more stylised and curated approach to casual dining in Melbourne. A growing desire for a balance between the informality of a cafe and the polish of a restaurant has spawned a legion of venues that continue to blur the lines. Restaurateurs all over the city are scrambling to keep pace with the fast changing landscape that has seen old institutions reinvent themselves to satiate a new breed of customer.

Restaurateur Frank van Haandel is doing just this. Following the success of the 2010 renovation upstairs at his iconic restaurant in St Kilda, Stokehouse, it was only a matter of time before he shifted his focus below deck. The decision to gut and rebuild the tired sea-level dining room completes the package, unveiling a beach shack with a whole new attitude, renamed Stokehouse Cafe.

In a nostalgic nod to St Kilda’s rich history, the new 240-seater is reminiscent of the beach’s heyday and is set to open its doors on Monday December 17, just in time for summer.

Stokehouse has survived the countless changes to Melbourne’s drinking and eating habits. Starting out life as an open teahouse pavilion in 1916, it was then taken over by a German family in the 1960s and renamed Stokehouse. Brothers Frank and John van Haandel set their sights on this unique stretch of sand in 1989, taking the reins and opening a pizza restaurant downstairs before injecting a fine dining counterpart upstairs.

“In recent years the downstairs eatery lost its way so we are just bringing back the good stuff from the old days,” says Stokehouse manager and Frank van Haandel’s right hand man, Anthony Musarra. “This marks a return to relaxed but cool dining, which has been missing for a while.”

Yes, a return to informality but not a complete departure from fine dining as Stokehouse is a testament to the fact there is room for both; a single staircase being the only divider. “We are fortunate to have two levels as the present day is about creating spaces with multiple offerings and experiences,” Musarra says.

As a hybrid dining site, what Stokehouse is attempting to offer is a multilayered experience with the intended result of a broadened appeal. Part of this idea is to adopt various personas over the course of the day, luring us in at breakfast and enticing us to settle in and stay the entire day before dancing well into the night. The incentive, according to Musarra, is to draw in larger crowds and appeal to the masses.

After seven years as a chef at the 1-2 chef hat restaurant upstairs Nick Mahlook will descend the stairwell as head chef of Stokehouse Cafe, unveiling lunch and dinner seven days and breakfast on weekends. “It’s unheard of as a chef to be in the same place for so long,” he boasts. “But it’s so nice here.”

His recent stint overseas has flavoured the new menu, which is an amalgam of Spanish, Mexican, Italian, Greek and Argentinean fare with a focus on quality of produce and simplicity.

Some of Stokehouse’s many new toys include the Spanish Josper charcoal oven, open flame spit and coal pit grill, which will reel out charcoal roasted chicken, daily spit roasts and a chilli dog to boot. “You have to think of ‘cafe’ as a loose term. The word cafe changes your perception of things, but the food does not compromise on quality,” he assures. “You just don’t have to use a knife and fork if you don’t want to.”

In an effort to reconnect us with the old St Kilda foreshore and retain the classic elements of the retro beach shack it once was, an expansive bar made of rough-cut natural timber is positioned front and centre, right on the beach. And in keeping with the nostalgic undercurrent, iconic imagery of the glory days at St Kilda Beach will line the walls, paying tribute to the late photographer Rennie Ellis.

“This new direction is about making something of its place again without turning our back on the environment,” Musarra explains. “People identify with what downstairs used to be, what the St Kilda foreshore used to be, we’re just returning to it.”

Stokehouse Cafe
30 Jacka Boulevard, St Kilda