If you were a regular at Chinatown cocktail bar Union Electric in 2017, you’d be forgiven for not noticing the changes underway at the venue.
Co-owner Huw Griffiths and his team spent their days building the bar’s new rooftop, trading as normal by night.
“We never closed, except for one night where we were a bit late to open – but that’s because there was a crane parked right in the middle of the bar,” says Griffiths.
The rooftop has become a relaxed gin garden, the plan is to stock 300 versions of the spirit; an appropriate counterbalance to the rum-focused, modern tiki-bar downstairs. Griffiths and business partner Shane Whiteley had always intended for Union Electric to be split across two different floors, with two personalities.
But the swift rooftop build Griffiths had hoped for ran into several hurdles, leading to a protracted and frustrating construction process.
One issue was Griffiths’s self-diagnosed infatuation with the building’s 19th century facade and ceilings.
“We were originally going to demolish the building,” he explains. “Then we found the beautiful brickwork and the roof with its handmade nails – it was magnificent, so we had to rebuild it.”
The building isn’t heritage-listed, so it’s preservation for preservation’s sake – but building a rooftop on top of the existing structure, without support, would have been too precarious.
Instead, Griffiths and Whiteley opted to erect an enormous gantry above the ground floor’s roof; rows of steel beams and nine eight-metre pillars support the rooftop garden. There was a five-month delay in acquiring that much steel, which pushed back the planned December opening.
Griffiths and Whiteley’s final challenge was figuring out how to open a successful rooftop bar without cannibalising the downstairs clientele.
“It’s one thing to stick a set of stairs into a bar, but where do you put them and how do you stop them from blocking the flow of the venue?” Griffiths says. “We wanted to prevent downstairs from becoming an afterthought.”
A large staircase has been built to run along the Union Electric’s rear wall, ensuring the rooftop hasn’t compromised much of the original bar’s seating or access to natural light.
Downstairs is still an Edison-bulbed, burnished-copper den, with more than 200 rums on offer.
Upstairs is lighter, with juniper plants, lilly pillies, lemon myrtle and other native and exotic gin botanicals planted throughout. Timber floors and furniture stand out against the dark brickwork of the surrounding buildings. There’s even a palm tree sapling in the centre, which will grow with the venue.
Despite their tonal differences, Griffiths believes that Union Electric’s two bars share the same goal.
“This place is about providing a proper escape to people, so they walk down a laneway and end up completely removed, that’s what we’re trying to achieve.”
13 Hefferman Lane, Melbourne
0450 186 466
Mon to Sun12pm–1am
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