“Swan Street was always gritty and dirty – the ugly duckling – but it was always destined to be a swan,” says David Abela. He bought a shop space on the underdeveloped street about 12 years ago, one with an uninviting entrance but a winning interior. For the past three years it has sat dormant after a stint as a cosmetics retailer, but the building was once one of Melbourne’s first department stores, M. Ball & Co, or “Ball’s Corner”.
“I’ve lived in the area for a long time, and I’ve seen the potential for it. I feel like it’s a really good time to be in Richmond,” he says. Abela, the founder of 3 Degrees Marketing, has teamed up with Andrew Ryan (Mitchelton Wines, Melbourne Pub Group) and Daniel Vid (Melbourne Pub Group) to bring the space to life as wine bar, The Ugly Duckling.
Dark tones and dim lighting create a moody, intimate bar at the front. A heritage-listed glass atrium bathes the back room in light. It's like drinking in a beer garden minus the potential for bad weather to ruin the fun, or a greenhouse without the heavy humidity.
Interior design studio Hecker Guthrie has used soothing tones of blonde wood, blue and white in the back. It creates the kind of calm atmosphere usually reserved for a yoga studio. It's a little more grown up than the carpeted Corner Hotel. More like Saint.Urban up the road; it’s a venue by locals, for locals, that aims to emulate the feeling of entertaining at home (where home has tattooed lads on call to pour Negronis).
Bartenders Nick Selvadurai (the 2015 Asia Pacific Belvedere Cocktail Challenge champion) and James Burchett have shaped a cocktail list that respects the classics, but also moves with the seasons on its more creative numbers. The Journeyman is a fresh, summery medley of Pampero Blanco Rum, Aperol, yellow chartreuse, peach liqueur, lemon juice and Thai basil. The Antipasto Martini playfully nods to the snacks menu, lacing sun-dried-tomato-infused vodka with cracked pepper, olive brine and rosemary.
The wine list offers many Victorian and European drops by the glass where you’d normally have to stretch for the whole bottle. Bar food plays a supporting role in the form of cheese, salumi, smoked almonds and chocolate.