Tash Conte is a tornado. She swirls, dodges and dances around the Brunswick Street traffic as she crosses the road to meet for coffee at Fitzroy local, Mario’s. Her curls bob in the wind as she delicately carries her newborn, balances a shoulder bag of nappies with finesse and looks nothing like a woman who – for the last decade – has set the bar for much of Melbourne’s drinking culture.
To suggest that Conte is a presence would be an understatement. A few minutes with her and you realise why the Black Pearl is celebrating its illustrious 10th anniversary. She’s disarmingly friendly, passionate, loyal, genuine and firmly rooted in her love for her bar, her bartenders and, most importantly, her clientele.
It’s a holistic recipe for success that has led to several bar awards and an innumerable amount of committed regulars who have helped maintain this Melbourne icon. And for Tash, that’s what it’s all about.
Tell us about the evolution of Black Pearl. What’s been the best part of the last decade?
The friendships, really. Business-wise it’s evolved, but the first three years of the Pearl was hard. Very hard. Things have changed since then. I mean, upon arriving to open up the space, we found a guy next door, dead on the street with a heroin needle in his arm. And my dad’s like ‘What have we got ourselves into?’ The whole cocktail scene was quite new. It was just us, Ginger and Polly. And we had nobody, and I mean nobody. It was just my sister and myself running the bar and my mum in the kitchen. But when we opened we had nobody, I mean nobody, coming in.
How did you begin to draw a following?
We were doing cocktail table service before anyone else. And if it weren’t for that, the Pearl would’ve never evolved into where she is today. It really always has been about the personal contact and I’ve stuck to that. It’s about the relationship. I always go back to Cheers. People think the Pearl is like that…and it is. You come in and the barmen know your name and they know your drink. It’s pretty special.
What is your background in the bar world?
I came from a pub background. The pub teaches you how to work with people. I’ve been shot at. I’ve had a car driven through the front window of the bar. I’ve had a pool cue broken over my head! And you know what, I’d go back and do it again. It gives you skin. We’ve spoiled our current bartenders. I’m from a cut where you do what the guest wants. We were doing specials with cocktails at the pub and people were drinking what we were creating instead of the pots. And we thought we should open a restaurant where people could come and drink these specials regularly.
How did you evolve from a restaurant to a bar?
After the chef put a cleaver to my throat I realized food was just not us. It was nuts. After that, I came in and broke every single chair…and my sister was like, ‘You’ve lost your shit!’ We just couldn’t enjoy ourselves. And at the time, my mum was doing awesome fruit juices that we were putting booze into…that’s what we do, that’s what we know and that’s what we’re into.
What became your emphasis once you focused on the bar?
I know how to run a business and I know how to make good drinks. When I get the boys in there, it’s like I need you to come in and do what you do best. I’m not gonna be on your back. You need to have freedom in your job, you have to have ownership. If you don’t have ownership, you don’t have people that stay for you four years, five years, seven years. That’s unheard of in the bar industry! The common factor in the Pearl is that it’s family driven.
Tell us about the name…
I used to be married to a jeweller. We had to do something rare and special. I mean, when we opened, we didn’t even have a sign or name! We picked some stones as names and we asked some friends what worked. Black Pearl was the only one that stuck. Other options were Ruby and Sapphire. Thank god we didn’t do those!
And the pirates?
The Pirates of the Caribbean screwed us all over! We had people coming in with hats, earrings, and parrots on their shoulder. Who honestly goes out with a parrot on their shoulder, love? Really? Really! And I’m like, ‘Take the sword off!’
After 10 years, what are you looking forward to or planning on changing in the future?
I wouldn’t open another venue. You lose focus then. Attic (the bar above Pearl) is enough for us. I can’t spread myself. And too be honest, I hope to be here another 10 years, I really do! I love the street and I love the people. I mean, we’ve got customers that have been with us since the day we opened. One is called Harry and I love him to death! I remember mopping the floor at 4am in the morning and Harry stumbling over waving at me. I’m like, ‘Oh my god, he’s still going!’ The dude is like 60! But I love that.
What defines a good bar?
If you can make one person happy, then you’re a great bartender. If you can keep just one person in your venue for three hours, you’re doing something right. And not many people can do that. Hell, not many bartenders can do that. I can name you countless people who come to our bar, their pot is there, the gin and tonic is there, the martini is there, they say hi to everyone and they go home. Not many places can say that. We can.
In the end, what makes the Fitzroy hospitality community so great?
If you think you’re that special, you shouldn’t be in the business. We all share the same customer pool...especially around here in Fitzroy. It’s all about the local. Friday and Saturday you just get through the night and the motions. From Sunday to Thursday, those are the nights – that’s when you see hospitality at its best.
Is our Melbourne cocktail culture getting a bit serious?
It’s just a bit too serious now. It is booze! We drink when we’re happy. We drink when we’re sad. We always drink. It’s just too serious now. ‘Oh they’re doing that, so how good can they be?’ I love the classics, don’t get me wrong, but how much longer can it go on before we all get bored.
If you had to describe the Black Pearl as a cocktail, what would it be?
Hmm…I’d say a Dark and Stormy, to be honest. You don’t know what you’re gonna get in the Black Pearl. It’s kind of mysterious. I’ve had people come and tell me how they’ve lost many hours of their lives in the Pearl. But that’s a good thing! Isn’t that why you’re coming to see us? You’re coming in to forget about what it is that’s bothered you or getting you down, and if we can make you forgot that, well, I don’t think that’s a bad thing.