This time last year, Picabar owners Melissa Bowen and brothers Brian and Conor Buckley were campaigning to continue trading at the Perth Cultural Centre. One month later, the state government announced – to much applause – that the trio had been granted a 10-year lease on the historic space, putting to an end more than seven years of uncertainty (and their tenuous month-by-month sublease). Now almost a year after securing the bar’s future, Bowen and the Buckleys are putting the final touches on Picabar 2.0 ahead of its scheduled opening late this month. While the thought of introducing Perth to the new bar is an exciting one, it’s also weighted with serious expectations too.
“It’s been a huge responsibility,” says Brian. For almost two months, he, Bowen (the two are married) and Conor have been overseeing the bar’s makeover. “When all these people come out to support you to save Picabar and you go, ‘great, now we’ve got a lease and now we can put money into it’. You don’t want to rip the soul out of the space and upset those that fought for it. It’s been a bit of a balancing act.”
“There were a lot of people with clear ideas of what they wanted [the building] to be” says Conor. “We just wanted to give it all the love it deserved because it’s an awesome building and it should be part of the area.”
Less than two weeks ahead of reopening, it’s safe to say that Picabar’s owners have hit that sweet spot between past and present. In some cases, it’s been a case of emphasising the very good bones that they inherited from the space’s past life as the Perth Boys School (originally opened on St Georges Terrace in 1847, the school was transplanted here 50 years later in 1897). Jarrah floorboards have been sanded back and varnished. Renovations unearthed a long-lost (and functional) fireplace. A fake ceiling has been removed, making the rest rooms feel more open and welcoming. (Brian: “Women used to not come here because they hated our bathrooms”).
In other instances, the changes are all about doing away with quick fixes in favour of more permanent solutions. The bar is now an L-shaped structure with more beer taps. The once-open kitchen has been upsized and moved into a bigger, self-contained space. The garden by the entrance has been transformed into a new al fresco deck area complete with bench seating and tables. Between this new seating area and extra space created by renovations, Picabar’s capacity has ballooned from 200 to 500 guests (depending on Covid-19 social distancing requirements, of course).
In all, there’s more space for guests, more space for storing the bar’s expanded drinks list (a former basement storage room has been turned into what Brian describes as “the world’s most beautiful cool room”) and more space for the team in the kitchen to do their thing. Co-head chefs George Maxwell and Nico Dreyfus will stick to the comfort cooking they were doing before the lockdown while adding a little more DIY to the menu.
“It’ll still be pub and bar food that will be approachable for everyone,” says Maxwell. “It’ll be a no-fuss approach, and not over-plated.”
While the steak sandwich will remain, vegetarians can expect a few more plant-based dishes including seasonal salads and a Neil Perry-inspired corn fritter. House-made chutneys and pickles will feature while the chefs are working on a menu of rotating specials: in short, all the things one might expect from a community-focussed bar in a cultural hub.
Picabar is due to reopen at 51 James Street, Northbridge at the end of September.