It takes someone with a real love of bars and a genuine appreciation of quality liquor in all its forms to create a place like Deco. The North Fitzroy venue exudes warmth and an understated decadence from the moment you walk through the front door: sink-into-me sofas, antique tables and chairs, art deco stylings and the rise and fall of animated chatter over gently humming music. It's hard to believe it was once little more than a concrete box acting as a fridge for the smallgoods factory next door, but from the moment its owner, the "alcoholically omnivorous" Steve Marmo, decided his day job as a journo was merely a distraction from his real passion, he has set about creating the sort of place where that passion could be indulged in style.
It's a passion that embraces the full spectrum of quality alcoholic beverages: everything from fine wines and complex beers to rare cognacs and - above all - Islay whiskies. There's even something of an educational approach when he's behind the bar - if you return to order the same drink a third time, chances are he'll stop you in your tracks and suggest you place your trust in him and take a little journey through the wide world of booze. It's an attitude that seems to have rubbed off on the staff too - just five minutes at the bar and you'll hear them talking knowledgeably and enthusiastically to anyone that wants to listen about anything on the extensive drinks list.
As for the beer side of things, Deco was one of the first bars in Melbourne to stock some of the more out-there imports, such as Duvel and Chimay, when they first arrived in Oz. Today, there's a nicely curated list of 40 bottles that still includes the Belgians plus a good selection of homegrown crafties and quality brews from around the globe, including New Zealand, Japan and Canada. Elsewhere, the wine and spirit lists are both lengthy and colourful, offering something for even the pickiest connoisseur.
Deco has woodfired pizzas, cheese platters and small plates for sharing. You'll find live jazz and blues from 6.30pm to 8.30pm on Sundays. Otherwise the music is kept firmly in the background. The courtyard at the rear has been turned into the kind of green oasis for which the phrase "best kept secret" could have been invented. In fact, given Deco has been around for 12 years and never advertised its presence through anything more than word of mouth, it's a phrase that could apply to the venue itself.
"The great thing about it is that everybody that comes in just talks. No one sits there with a mobile phone," says Steve. "People come in and whatever style of booze they want, we probably have it - and have the knowledge to back it up."