A retail zone since the 1850s and minutes from the CBD, Bridge Road in Richmond was once a bargain hunter’s dream.
“Originally it was a booming area because of the factory-outlet stores,” says Nick Alexander, president of the Bridge Road Marketing Team. “Eventually, though, people switched to buying online and started shopping at large-scale Direct Factory Outlets.”
As the street got quieter and business dwindled, stores began to fold underneath rising rents driven upwards by residential growth. The vacant shopfronts further served to ward off retailers looking to expand into the area. Hanging by a thread for nearly a decade, the strip finally bottomed-out in August 2014, when vacancy rates peaked at an all-time high of 19.3 per cent.
The past 12 to 18 months tell a different story, though. The latest numbers from property consultancy Knight Frank show a six-per-cent drop from those alarming figures.
Alexander attributes much of the street’s recent success to apartment developments, though concedes that in the past year “a lot of new businesses – mostly in food – have opened up”.
Cafes such as Touchwood and Fifty Acres were ahead of the game when they opened in 2013, but others were quick to catch up. Nicole Hateley and Darian Szyszka established Reunion & Co in early 2015 after walking past the empty tenancy “a couple of times a day for almost three years”, Szyszka says.
“We worked together on this street for a few years as project managers, so we saw the decline and all the vacancies occurring and realised the street was going to have a little renaissance.”
El Atino & Co, which specialises in Latin American food, is another 2015 opening that has impressed with its spacious fit-out and cooking classes. And the team behind Axil Coffee Roasters successfully opened its new venture, Mayday, in early 2016.
The boom isn’t limited to breakfast and brunch spots. St Domenico Pizza Bar (2015) pumps out authentic Neapolitan pizzas via an Italian stone oven. A few doors down, modern Thai restaurant LadyBoy Dining & Bar (open since 2014) invites you to “rock out with your wok out” with its neon signage.
“I always had Richmond in the back of my mind,” Manning says. “I think this area is really up-and-coming with the whole food movement overflowing from the inner north. There are a few places opening up with a more modern take on casual dining. Anchovy is pretty new, and Mister Jennings – I’m a big fan of their food."
Chef Ryan Flaherty opened Mister Jennings in 2014 after stints at El Bulli and The Fat Duck. His intimate venue seats 35 people and has a reputation for clever, original dishes, such as frozen kangaroo carpaccio. Minamishima (2015), just a few steps away from Bridge Road proper, serves some of the finest sushi and sake in Melbourne. It would hold its own wherever it was located.
As Bridge Road distinguishes itself as a food destination, Hateley and Szyszka of Reunion & Co. are excited by the growth on the strip.
“The more competition there is, the more customers you gain in the long run,” Szyszka says. With more than 620 apartments already given the go-ahead, the burgeoning residential population will keep this trend moving.