Once upon a time there were more pubs than people in North Melbourne (well, almost). The suburb is littered with buildings that show their hotel heritage, now mostly converted into apartment buildings and office spaces. Now Sandra and Jose De Oliveira, long-time publicans and restaurateurs behind Bridge Road’s Bouzy Rouge, are returning to the suburb with the newly opened North Melbourne Hotel.
It’s a familiar space for the De Oliveiras. Their very first hotel, the Sir Robert Peel, was on neighbouring Queensberry Street. While they didn’t have plans to return to the suburb, a chance encounter with the former Rubira's building changed their minds. “You could just tell as you walked in that it had really good bones,” Sandra says.
The publicans didn’t change the multi-room pub much structurally. They focused instead on dressing the space in the maximalist aesthetic of their interior designer, Jean-Pierre Heurteau. A large marble table forms the centre of the front bar, and there are smaller marble tables and a French-style concrete garden setting in the rear. The trimmings are all retro-euro: black-glass chandeliers; abundant candelabra; cement lions and Romanesque statuary; an enormous brass angel.
The foremost aim of the North Melbourne Hotel’s food and booze offering is affordability. Spanish, French, Portuguese and Australian wines all come in at around $5 to $7, and three taps pour Carlton Draught, Estrella and Moondog’s Old Mate Pale. “With this we just wanted a pub that’s really comfortable and that people feel really good in, but at pub prices,” says Sandra. “There really was an emphasis on keeping prices down.”
Like Bouzy, the menu is European with a Spanish skew: think seafood paella served in the pan; fish of the day with chermoula, cous-cous and preserved-lemon stew; house-made linguine marinara; and Portuguese-style minute steak served with chips, jamon and an egg. For special occasions, a whole suckling pig, slow-cooked goat and 12-hour smoked-beef brisket are available on pre-order.
Ultimately, The North Melbourne Hotel isn’t about breaking new ground; it’s about simple, affordable pleasures for locals. “I’m a publican and this is a pub,” says Sandra. “That’s the essence of what we do.”