Any successful restaurateur will mention the value of attention to detail, but few will do it with as much affable bluntness as Michael Madrusan. “It’s so simple to me,” says the founder of distinctive Melbourne bars The Everleigh, Heartbreaker and Bar Margaux. “I get passionate about what I do, I try to do it the best way possible and then I try to tell everyone about it … What’s the point otherwise?”
Don’t mistake that for bravado. Long before lining up his current successes – including an in-house ice company and a take-home bottled cocktail range – Madrusan did the hard yards, learning everything there is to know about classic cocktails. He tended bar in London and New York, the latter six-year stint eventually landing him a prized job at world-class cocktail bar Milk & Honey.
Things went so well for him there that Milk & Honey founder Sasha Petraske approached Madrusan about opening a sister bar together. “That’s what we all work toward,” he says. “It was the greatest honour, doing a project with your mentor. He suggested somewhere in Manhattan and I said, ‘How about Australia?’ I wanted to come home anyway. I moved to Melbourne and started looking for a space.”
Even after his winning streak in the States, though, Madrusan didn’t get cocky. He had been away from Australia for years, and was originally from Newcastle, so he took his time absorbing Melbourne’s unique bar culture. Once he found the perfect space, above Belle’s Hot Chicken on Gertrude Street in Fitzroy, he faced another hurdle when his would-be investors demanded 20 per cent of everything on top of repayment of the loan.
“It just didn’t feel right. It felt like they wanted too much,” he says. Eventually, his parents stepped up and mortgaged their house to lend him the money. The Everleigh opened in 2011 and has gone on to win a slew of awards and become a leader in Australia’s classic-cocktail culture. (Think fizzes, sours and Old Fashioneds.) Madrusan has even published his own recipe book in the wake of the bar’s celebrity.
So it all worked out? “Absolutely. We’re still here. We’re not driving Lamborghinis, but I never wanted to anyway,” he says with a laugh. He also credits fortunate timing for The Ev’s success, not just because he set up on Gertrude Street as that sector began to take off, but because his bar championed old-school cocktail culture just as a few influential TV shows were bringing it back.
“I attribute a lot of the interest in our style of drinks to shows like Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire,” says Madrusan. “Martinis looked so classy and elegant. The world was getting smaller by the day around that time, and Australia was [catching up] really quick. We came in at a great time.”
Given that those tried-and-true cocktails had fallen out of favour for decades, did Madrusan feel the need to educate customers about this forgotten culture? “I never wanted to open a bar to make people feel like they had to learn something,” he says. “I’d seen the intimidation that bars with a lot of study can bring to a consumer. I got into bartending because I loved the relationships I formed behind the bar and over the bar. So for me, opening a bar was just an extension of something I really loved.”
Again, it all comes back to sharing what you’re passionate about. “Everything that we put in front of people is stuff that we love,” he says. “Because we’re excited about it – life’s too short to sell stuff you don’t get behind.” That extends equally to dark-lit rock‘n’roll bar Heartbreaker and French bistro Bar Margaux. “While being quite different, they all lead into the same values. And that’s what we try to put across.”
Madrusan and his trusted staff will reinforce those values when a traveling Broadsheet event series, the Broadsheet Kitchen – pairing promising chefs with established restaurants for an exciting new concept in mentoring – comes to Bar Margaux later this year. That’s fitting, since The Everleigh’s non-perishable bottled cocktails sprang from the first Broadsheet Restaurant, when the Everleigh’s bartenders were asked to make cocktails every night of the week.
Even today, despite all of his experience, Madrusan faces obstacles. When opening Bar Margaux, for example, he faced legal issues he’d never had before. “I’ve learnt some very expensive lessons,” he says. His advice is to never lose sight of what you want to do. That includes not trying to do too much or overly divide your attention.
“Trying to do too many things is only going to get confusing, and therefore confuse the public,” he says. “With The Everleigh, I knew exactly how to make classic cocktails, and that’s what I did.” That meant not trying to also curate an extensive beer menu or wine list. “No one ever calls The Everleigh a bar,” he adds. “They always call it a cocktail bar.”
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