When the Mt Erica Hotel shut suddenly last Christmas, locals in Prahran, Windsor and Armadale wondered if its fate – like other Victorian-era pubs in Melbourne in recent years – would be demolition.
But unlike its compatriots, Prahran’s Mt Erica, built in 1853, has partial heritage protection. That’s reassuring for locals. Even better is that as of March, the new tenants are Will Benjamin, Matt Vero and Callan Hitchens – the team behind Fitzroy’s Marquis of Lorne – together with chef Sean Donovan of the Fitzroy Town Hall Hotel.
“We’d been looking for established, old Victorian pubs with a bit of history, which had become forgotten,” says Benjamin.
“One sitting there, and waiting to be rejuvenated,” Donovan adds.
“The Erica had seen brighter days,” Benjamin continues. “But it's big, it’s got history, it’s a terrific location. It’s one of the oldest pubs in the area.”
Originally, the Mt Erica was located in bushland. A listing from 1853 in the old Argus newspaper described the hotel as: “a resort for those wishing to escape from the confined air and dust of Melbourne.” Part of the adjoining land was a paddock used for horse racing. More than a century later, locals tell Benjamin, ACDC used to frequent the pub. Most recently the Erica had been home to Austin’s, a tapas restaurant run by MoVida Next Door alumni.
The Marquis of Lorne owners had been looking for a new site for about two years, and they came close to taking over a hotel in Brunswick. But The Erica came along at the right time, equipped with a rare 30-year lease and a similar feel to the Marquis – a neighbourhood pub that already had the makings of “a really worn-in local.”
“We’re doing a pretty significant renovation, but not fully gutting the place,” Benjamin says. “We’re taking it back to what is closer to its original shell. Giving the space a bit of warmth and familiarity. It’s a restoration project.”
The Erica is big – its capacity is twice that of Marquis of Lorne. Interior designer Wendy Bergman is in charge of the fit-out, which includes the extension of an existing courtyard into a “pretty significant” outdoor space with capacity for 150.
“The brief has been to recapture the old Victorian 1950s and ’60s pub feel,” Benjamin says, removing add-ons from the early ’90s and 2000s and restoring a sense of mid-century charm.
The end result will be “the same model as Marquis of Lorne – a classic, old-school public bar with a pub dining room and beer garden, which is a contemporary Australian local,” Benjamin says.
The food offering will be Sean Donovan’s domain. Donovan began his publican days in 2008 when he purchased Footscray’s Station Hotel. He bought his second pub – the Wayside Inn in South Melbourne – in 2011. He has since sold both, and is now chef-patron of Fitzroy Town Hall Hotel with wife Natalie Fee. Before he moved into hotels, Donovan was executive chef at The Botancial, and before that executive chef at Radii. He trained in Europe, mostly in London, with stints in two three-star Michelin restaurants including Georges Blanc and the now-closed La Tante Clair.
To help him run the pub’s “enormous kitchen” Donovan has tapped chef Jacob Young, with whom he worked at the Station for about five years.
The menu at the Mt Erica will feature “premium seafood, great steaks – sharply priced,” Donovan says.
“There are certain values that we want to keep consistent,” Benjamin adds, referring to the benchmark established in Fitzroy. “A real cornerstone is value for money. We want you to be able to have a decent meal for $20 and not have to think too much beyond that. If you want, you can go the whole hog in the dining room, but equally you can come and watch footy and have a pint and a burger.”
The Erica won’t be a replica of its Fitzroy sibling.
“We’re very conscious of not franchising Marquis of Lorne,” Benjamin says.
What you will find, he hopes, is a brighter, more welcoming space than before. No pokies – just pints, good food, and mates.
The Mt Erica, 420 High Street, Prahran will reopen in spring.