One scene that benefits from rapid change is the food scene, which in St Kilda, is really pushing boundaries
St Kilda’s food scene has seen more ups and downs than the Luna Park roller coaster. The coexistence of grunge and glamour is its only defining constant. Historically, it was a fancy ’hood with posh hotels. World War II brought the sailors, hookers and debaucherous drinking. In the 1930s, Acland Street became the centre for the Jewish community and was blessed with umpteen cake shops. Tits and schnitz nights at the old Newmarket Hotel were a huge ’90s draw, (an event that was revived last year, in a ‘classier’ guise at the plush, renovated Cellar Bar). In the past few decades, some pretty big guns have made their mark: Ronnie Di Stasio, Guy Grossi, Gilbert Lau and Andrew McConnell. So where are we now? High rents on Acland have seen the historical cake shops yield to endless frozen yoghurt stalls (why? Why so much froghurt?) The backpacker contingent means there are more pizza holes and overpriced cafés than ever. But is the scene on the fall or the rise? Are venues dumbing down to keep up? Or is it just as it ever was – a seaside suburb, rich in trash, with treasures for those who seek?
We ask chef-restaurateur Andrew McConnell if a changing scene influenced his decision to convert Golden Fields to a wine bar, Luxembourg. “If I thought that St Kilda was defunct, I certainly wouldn’t haven’t reinvented myself, I would have sold the business,” says McConnell. He’s all aboard team St Kilda. He even recently moved here. “It’s vibrant,” he says. “There are more cafes and we’re moving away from the top end restaurants to the middle-range places I like.” To him, there’s no slide, just evolution. “For every shop that’s closed in Acland St, five others have popped up. There are still niche business and operators – they’ve often just moved off the main strips, which have changed. You have to look harder. Which I think makes it more interesting.”
Frank Van Haandel agrees. “St Kilda reinvents itself every day.” He took over the Stokehouse restaurant in 1990 when Australia was in a recession and St Kilda was struggling. “It was all cheap eats or intimidating restaurants,” he says. Stokehouse bridged the gap. “Sometimes you need a recession to level the field, and spark that innovation.” And it’s true. The current GFC hangover has caused several existing restaurants – including Stokehouse – to evolve, and go casual. Van Haandel added a more casual bistro two years ago, which will be a large part of the new Stokehouse when it is rebuilt at the end of this year (it dramatically burnt down in January). To Van Haandel the key to St Kilda’s success – and to succeeding there – is rolling with the punches. “People think they can set up in St Kilda and win business by default, but you soon get found out if you’re not passionate. You have to move with the times.” Overall though, he has faith. “We’ve got a very progressive council at the moment. I think anyone wanting to open businesses here should approach them.”
Where to eat
Di Stasio/ Bar Di Stasio
Milk the Cow