When I visit Pontoon on Sunday afternoon I’m struck first by how busy it is. It’s not a particularly nice day – there are periods when the wind drops, the rain clears and the sun breaks through and it’s pleasant – but it’s not one of those days that coaxes everyone to the beach.
But the newly opened, sand-level restaurant that occupies the entire ground floor of the rebuilt Stokehouse St Kilda is teeming with people. Families treat their kids to pizza and hot chips; groups of mates enjoy a few beers; couples share small plates and a bottle of wine. “We’re back again,” I overhear one of the diners tell a waiter.
Seeing this portion of the Esplanade so lively is almost like a return to the St Kilda of old. There are dogs everywhere – even the odd rollerblader. If you didn’t know that a fire had destroyed the entire complex in January 2014, and that the site had basically sat dormant since, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was business as usual.
“Lots of people have told me that it still has a very familiar and inviting and approachable vibe about it,” says owner Frank Van Haandel, “even though it’s a totally new building and quite a different design.”
While more casual in approach, Pontoon is a much sharper and sleeker ship than its predecessor, the Stokehouse Cafe (or Stokehouse Downstairs). Much of the space is taken up by a huge bar and the rest is occupied by an assortment of sand-and-earth-coloured tables and chairs, brightened by pastel-coloured menus.
In the open kitchen flames leap from the grill, licking whole baby snapper, king prawns, Moreton Bay bugs, octopus and hanger steak. There’s a wood-fired pizza oven, and snacky items such as braised ham hock and manchego croquettes.
Pontoon, in a way, could be Melbourne’s answer to the beach clubs of Bali (Potato Head, Motel Mexicola or Ku De Ta come to mind) with its summery cocktails, grilled dishes and boardwalk spirit. It’s open late every day, and there are DJs on weekend evenings. And for the residents of St Kilda and Port Phillip, Pontoon’s opening is particularly significant.
“St Kilda these last couple of years has looked a bit sad, a bit flat,” says Van Haandel, referring to the destruction of Stokehouse and Republica, and the closing of iconic music venue the Espy.
“I do believe though that with the rebuild of Donovans, the Prince of Wales Kitchen, the revitalisation of Acland Street, Di Stasio’s bar, and our new venues, that there’s reason enough there for everyone to start coming back.”
If the crowds that turned up to enjoy a glass of wine in a snatched moment of sunshine on Sunday are anything to go by, Pontoon – and the entire Stokehouse complex – will bring the crowds back.
30 Jacka Boulevard, St Kilda