For 16 years, Gail Donovan has run Donovans on the St Kilda Esplanade, a fine dining restaurant, which, given its location has a decidedly beach-house atmosphere. Unlike its neighbour along the beach, Stokehouse, Donovans feels a lot more like someone’s home – casual, lived in, even a bit cluttered.
When Gail and her husband Kevin bought the restaurant (previously Jean Jacques), they decided they wanted to make the place appealing in winter, as well as summer. “I really wanted it to be warm with open fire places in winter, but it looked like this summer beach house,” tells Donovan when Broadsheet visits as she prepares for this year’s summer makeover. “I thought, well if I can change the decorations that would be good… If I bought some old stuff I could make it look different and we could start to change it. So that’s how we went about making it change its face every six months.”
And changing the face of the restaurant is exactly what she has done every year for the last 16, refurbishing the interior twice a year with the help of her best friend and restaurant manager Darryl Bell, re-imagining the space with summer and winter themes. They change everything from the entrance and the staff uniforms to the crockery, the table settings, chair covers and ornaments. Even the family photo wall, replete with snaps of Gail and Kevin on holidays in Europe, friends dining in the restaurant and their dogs get a six-monthly refresh.
The project takes a week to complete with Donovan and Bell rising at 3am every morning and working through to just before lunch service, so they don’t have to close the restaurant. “It’s a production,” laughs Bell. “But no one even notices it’s happening,” adds Donovan.
“The first night my darling friend that makes all the cushions…he and his wife come over for dinner and then when we close on Sunday night, he helps us change all of the cushions over,” Donovan explains. “We start at 3am on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday to try and get it done, because the bathrooms take a whole day.”
The three bathrooms are one of Donovans signature transformations, previously themed in ski, golf and a pink poodle parlour for the ladies. “It was so tacky, but people just loved the poodle parlour so much we had to keep it in for a whole year,” Donovan reveals as she takes me on a tour of the restaurant, pointing out what she’ll be changing, where antique pieces sit next to cheaper items from Bunnings or things they have made. “We mix cheap pieces with beautiful pieces so that it’s not as expensive all the way through. It’s kind of like smoke and mirrors, if you like.”
The ‘summer change’ usually takes place in time for the Spring Racing Carnival in October, with the ‘winter change’ completed around Mothers Day in May. A winter interior will be made up of deep, dark, warmer tones and corduroy, while summer will be light and bright with whites, stripes, spots and linen. “The theme is going to be boats this time, but there is no net and plastic lobsters, we are leaving that out,” she laughs. “We found some beautiful old lobster cages in Tasmania, which are the original. That’s where the whole theme came from. We started shopping three months ago basically, so we would have been to Tyabb and Geelong – there are loads cool places in Geelong.
“We do a lot of stuff over the other side of the city too,” she continues. “We get some of our special stuff from Izzi & Popo; they are just great there!” Other favourites include Bonjour (South Melbourne), Lost Ark Antiques (Williamstown) and Tyabb Packing House (Tyabb).
It’s an expensive and arduous task, but one the Donovan and Bell look forward to. In the process they’ve also become collectors. Tucked in a kiosk behind the restaurant’s kitchen is a proverbial treasure trove. “We’ve got a lots of expensive pieces that we keep using. And now when we go shopping we only have to pick up two or three really classy bits to put in with the stuff that we’ve got. So we have a really good collection to work with now – a really good collection.”
“It has developed into a thing that we spend our money on. We don’t spend any money on advertising; we just spend money on changing the building. We change the uniforms, absolutely everything. So now it has gotten to a big thing,” Donovan continues excitedly. “As soon as we finish one thing we start buying for the next one. We have a lot of fun doing this.”