Driver Lane is a tiny alleyway off Little Bourke Street in the city. If you take a walk down there at night you’ll see a man and a velvet rope in front of a door. At first this gives the impression of something a little exclusive. But the man is smiling and willingly un-clips the rope for you. Descend the stairs and you’ll reach a giant glass door with a wrought-iron frame that opens automatically into a low-lit, cavernous space.
This is the ceremonious entrance to Beneath Driver Lane, a new bar in the city located in the vault of the old Money Order Office. Built in the 1890s as an appendage to the GPO building, it has since housed a war museum, political offices and a couple of restaurants.
“The first time I came here I fell in love with the place,” says owner Hamish Goonetilleke. “You feel it when you come in – there’s something special about it.”
“I think a bar should draw an emotional response,” he says as Chester Arthur “Howlin’ Wolf” Burnett’s gravelly voice wails in the background. “I love the intimacy of an underground venue – it’s dark and moody and it’s a place where you want to get comfortable and talk.”
Goonetilleke, who has owned and operated The Rum Diary for the past five years, has brought on Danielle Rensonnet to oversee the food offering. The former head chef of Bellota Wine Bar has put together a menu with oysters, charcuterie and cheese, and a short-order selection of rich bar snacks that includes a dish of smoked octopus, chorizo, black garlic aioli and pickled chilli. And burrata with pickled zucchini and watercress.
Jonathan Minihan, formerly of The Toff in Town, is on drinks duty. His extensive menu shows off a background in cocktails and technical expertise. Martinis are made with liquid nitrogen, and a signature cocktail called Catalyst Fire is made using the smoke of palo santo wood.
Goonetilleke designed the space with Studio Equator. It mixes old with new; there are original brick archways, marble flourishes and a domed ceiling mingling with low-hanging pendants and partitions made of rope. Semi-private banquettes flank the space and the walls are adorned with dozens of black and white photos from eras past.
For lovers of top-shelf wine and whisky there’s a private tasting cellar.
“It’s a bit of a back-of-house experience,” Goonetilleke says. “If you order some top-shelf whisky you can go in there and look at the bottle and learn about it as you drink.”
There’s also a large wooden liquor cabinet for those who want to store a bottle of spirits until next time – the bar stocks up to 160 whiskies and more than 70 rums.
“You can come in and buy a bottle of gin, whisky or whatever,” Goonetilleke says. “Get your own key and store it for up to two months.”
Beneath Driver Lane
2/12 Driver Lane, Melbourne
Sat to Thu 4pm–3am