Based on previous experiences at the various 'Land shopping centres around Melbourne, we had a pretty clear idea what to expect when we received instructions on how to find The Cellar Door, the new venture from Croydon's Public Brewery.
Head to Eastland. Find parking (complete with the warning "I've been advised that parking is woeful"). Look for the brewer in a building site in the left hand corner of the town square precinct.
It didn't exactly stoke enthusiasm for what lay ahead. Presumably, Eastland would be a facsimile of its fellow shopping centres. Thus, despite having enjoyed the fantastic experience that is the Public Brewery, it was a struggle to conjure a mental image of Ringwood town centre, next to the train station, that didn't end with The Cellar Door being, at best, a bar and restaurant in a row of once-loved shop fronts.
Perhaps we should have watched the news, listened to the radio or picked up a newspaper as, upon arrival, it soon became apparent that something not normal was happening. Well, unless it was common for people in sharp suits and dresses to do their shopping at Eastland while being followed by camera crews, or for young men in nothing but shorts to be dispensing treats outside stores.
It turns out that Eastland and the part of Ringwood, in Melbourne's outer east, where it stands is in the midst of a multimillion dollar expansion and redevelopment and this was the official opening of phase one (hence the "woeful" parking situation on this particular morning). Facing into the town square were the likes of Jimmy Grant's, Huxtaburger and Hunter and Barrel and, just around one corner, there was The Cellar Door, heralded by what appeared to be a barn door.
Inside, looking past the staff and builders buzzing like bees whose honey supply has just been pilfered as they finalised preparations for the looming opening, it became quickly apparent this was less "bar and restaurant in a row of once-loved shop fronts" and more "dazzlingly impressive three-storey showcase for the best beer, wine, spirits and produce Victoria has to offer".
Yarra Valley Dairy was taking control of the provedore that welcomed you as you walked in, there was a 50 litre pilot brewery awaiting commissioning to the right. Past the provedore was a bar lined with 14 taps that were to pour nothing but craft beer from the Public Brewery and their brewing mates from around the state (including the regular collaborations they create together) and fridges filled with local beer and cider too.
Beyond that was the main dining room and kitchen and inside there was a face from the past: Zoe Birch, who we'd first met when she was head chef at The Courthouse in North Melbourne (in its former guise) and subsequently invited to be one of the chefs at the first ever Good Beer Week Mega Dega. Upstairs, on the mezzanine, we found one half of ElbowSkin setting up a bar that makes a feature of Australian spirits. Above that, a rooftop terrace decorated with greenery and wooden frames that made it easy to forget there was a shopping centre car park the other side of one of the walls.
The mind started composing a text home: "Honey, if you need to do any mall shopping, how about we drive just that little bit further next time?"
Speaking a few weeks after opening, Dale White, the driving force behind the Public Brewery and its offshoot says: "They were building [the new Eastland] and had these superstars but no local representation. We had this locally focused business and an existing model here in Croydon. They heard about it. Someone said to them to come and see me."
And thus began the process that ended up as The Cellar Door: a twist on the formula that's triumphed in Croydon, albeit "with a suit on".
"We just wanted to expand on everything that we do at the brewery, but in a more formal way," says Dale (above left with brewer Brendan Guild). "The dining room is a place to take our food to a different level and the rooftop garden was the cherry on the pie.
"We wanted a skylight put in so they had to engineer the roof for a skylight. I said, 'Can we get onto the roof?' and they said, 'Well, I guess you can.' 'Can I put a garden on the roof?'
"Five questions in 25 seconds and they said yes to everything."
From the off, the realisation of his vision has proved popular.
"From the moment it opened," says Dale, "it was people everywhere."
Such instant popularity has brought with it challenges, as they've had to tweak the processes required to run a busy, multi-faceted venue on the hoof. But, presumably, they're the sort of challenges they'd have chosen, rather than opening and wondering whether people would come.
"The business model my wife and I came up with is to be dynamic," he says. "[People can] come and have a beer. Or have dinner with their mum. Or just get cheese, salami and bread from the provedore."
He goes on to mention one-off wines, plans for events and functions, and the mini brewery upon which head brewer Brendan Guild will come and play, often with fellow brewers.
"We're 5km from the Public Brewery and are continuing that theme here," says Brendan, a former home brewer who'd left a career in HR to take a gamble on the Public Brewery, despite having just started a family, and who is, presumably, rather glad he did.
"We've always had Yarra Valley wines and ciders. All the beers are Victorian and independently owned, which meant we dropped Goat [after the sale to Asahi]. All the produce comes from the Yarra Valley and the collaboration with the Yarra Valley Dairy was a big part of us coming in [to be part of the new development]."
The Cellar Door isn't the only new venture from the Public Brewery team to open in the past few months. They opened a new production facility going by the name 100 Acres Brewing Company at Rob Dolan Wines in Warrandyte, where they're also developing a function space that looks into the brewery.
With their original setup at Croydon featuring a small main brewery and a series of 50 litre mini-brewhouses for brew-your-own customers, they were nowhere near meeting demand. Now Brendan has a brewery more than four times the size and is focused on refining a core range of Featherweight (a light beer), Funky Town American Brown, Red Falcon red ale and "a pale ale of some description".
Most will be on tap at The Cellar Door most of the time, while Brendan plans on a spot of "tap swapping" – exchanging beers with the locals with whom they've collaborated in the past, such as nearby Napoleone Brewers or Temple in Brunswick.
"That's what drives a lot of people in that whole craft thing: it's that ability to get to the source of the product," he says. "That's one of the things I love about Croydon: when you have a beer, it's probably travelled about 500 metres in its life."
It's fair to say that, in terms of distance, those involved in the Public Brewery haven't travelled far since opening the doors of the converted warehouse in 2014; after all, before things got really busy Dale would make his way around on a skateboard.
Equally, as they find their feet at their new joint, it's impossible to deny they've come a heck of a long way.
The Cellar Door is found at Tenancy R10/Town Square, Eastland Shopping Centre, Ringwood.