Now considered classic, there was nothing “classic” about Punch Lane’s style when it opened in 1994, 20 years ago. “People keep on saying lately, ‘Oh, it’s a real Melbourne place,’ says owner Martin Pirc, sitting on a bentwood before the bar opens. “But, what’s a ‘Melbourne place’?”

Well, if Punch Lane’s the archetype, then a “Melbourne place” is urbane, but not stuffy; faintly European, but proudly local; understated; tasteful. Pirc points out that before Punch Lane, people didn’t really do bar-and-bistro. Punters either drank or they ate. “I did a wine and cheese board just to start with,” he recalls. “People weren’t doing cheese on its own.”

Over the past two decades, the menu has been through the hands of many chefs, infusing into it the culinary trends of the day – Asian, Middle Eastern – but the connecting thread has always been modern Mediterranean. As for the cellar list, it runs to almost as many pages as Punch Lane’s got years, and tends toward the refined Australian and the interesting European (with an obvious soft spot for France).

It bears mentioning that Punch Lane is not, in fact, on Punch Lane. The first time I visited, I scanned doorways behind the bins in the adjacent alleyway, until popping out onto the top of Little Bourke Street. The bar is across the way, with its tall Edwardian windows looking out over Liverpool Street.

The venue has good bones: red brick, tall ceilings, solid wood floors. More than 100 years old, the building was originally home to the Victorian Police (while Longrain across the road stabled their horses). Recently, Pirc pulled out the insides to refine what worked and abandon what didn’t. He added overhead wine storage, installed modernist light fittings and tweaked the shape of the bar. Customers like it, but Pirc maintains the refit was really for him. “It’s almost self-indulgent,” he says. “I think it’s probably as much about really needing it for myself, like needing to make the place look and feel the way I want it to feel.”

He spends enough time in the bar to warrant it. As an owner-operator, Pirc is an increasingly unusual restaurateur in that he works on the floor most nights. “It’s a pretty awesome way to spend your day – people are coming in and they’re having a good time,” he says.

Pirc himself is undoubtedly one of the reasons diners and drinkers continue to return to Punch Lane. Unlike other famous front-of-house types, Pirc isn’t strictly a personality: he’s softly spoken, modestly dressed, thoughtful – earnest, even. The man’s not about chat. “I’m the most social anti-social person in a public forum,” he admits. “I feel like I’m one of those school kids who can be everyone’s mate; get on with the geeks, the dorks, the cool kids. I think in hospo, I’ve always been in the background, in a way.”

His anti-bullshit approach is part of Pirc’s ideology. He says his goal is to provide customers with that old-fashioned stuff – being treated the way they like in a place they like. Whatever it is, his approach seems to give diners a sense of ownership. “For me it starts with the way you feel emotionally in a place,” says Pirc. “I remember a guy, when 9/11 happened, just came here and sat at the bar. He said ‘This is the first place I thought I just wanted to come and be’. As corny as that is, his need was to come here and be in this space.”

Though the fact that Pirc has avoided the lure of opening a second (or 10th) venue might be part of Punch Lane’s longevity, lately he’s been considering expanding. For the past few years he’s been sitting on a site next door, one that is markedly bigger – a, “cavernous European grotto,” says Pirc. “I’d like to think that I’d be able to do something with that space. What that is, I’m not one 100 per cent sure,” he says. “It won’t be a restaurant, it’ll be more a place where people can go to and hang out and eat cheese.”

Somewhere like Punch Lane, hopefully.

Punch Lane
43 Little Bourke Street, Melbourne
(03) 9639 4944

punchlane.com.au