Back To The Bar, Melbourne

Today, after making it through a world record number of days in lockdown, Melbourne is open again. James Smith and Will Ziebell spoke to brewery and venue owners and returning customers to assess the vibe.


“As we got here, we saw one of the regulars walking across the road. ‘That’s old mate Slug!’

“Then we got around the corner and saw three guys at the end of their morning run – you could see these people converging.”

Their shared destination was the Great Northern Hotel, in Carlton North, where staff were opening the doors as soon as their 7am license allowed. By 7.05am, Stone & Wood account manager Ross Ryan (quoted above) was in the front bar with industry mates from Fixation, BentSpoke and The Catfish, regulars were ordering their first drinks, dogs were reunited with dogs they'd not seen in months, and three tables on Rathdowne Street were already occupied by happy faces as Melbourne emerged from its sixth COVID lockdown.

“It’s great to be back again,” publican Al Carragher tells me soon afterwards, squeezing in our chat before he begins a hectic schedule of media interviews with ABC Melbourne, Channel 9 and others.

He describes the current situation as frustrating – just 20 guests are allowed inside the sizeable corner pub at any one time, with 50 more outside until the next stage of easing – but admits there’s also relief.

“I thought we would have a few,” he says of opening the door to find people waiting at 7am. “We’re pretty much full under the current capacity limits from 2pm today through the weekend and for the next few weekends.”

 

Ross Ryan (second right) joins industry mates from Fixation and BentSpoke plus returning regulars and their dogs for 7am beers at the Great Northern. Some had planned to go to Leonard's House Of Love at 11.59pm on Thursday only to find a queue more than 100 long awaiting them.

 

While many of those early customers had planned to enjoy a 7am freedom pint – after showing their vaccination status at the door and before starting their day – there were others swept up in the moment. By the time I make it outside to chat to the three runners, who had indeed timed their 6km morning run to finish at the Great Northern bang on 7am, they’ve been joined by Dervla Larkin.

“I literally live right behind the pub,” she says. “I was about to go for a morning walk and had no idea the pub was open and got caught up in the excitement – it’s far too good not to be part of it!”

As for her new mates, Sam McGregor, Will Nason and Sean Bate, it was a very welcome return to a haunt they’ve been frequenting for years.

“We thought it would be weird and ruin our whole day to have a pint in the morning,” Sean says, “but it’s really nice!”

“The whole run we were talking about how good that first pint would be,” Sam adds.

As we chat, Matilda Marozzi from ABC Melbourne walks past looking for Al. Soon afterwards, a TV cameraman asks staff for help getting his rig into the front bar. When I jump into the car to head to my next stop, Al’s voice is coming from the speakers on Virginia Trioli’s show.

Welcome back, Melbourne. James Smith


A welcome back Rattenhund for Crafty writer Will Ziebell at Miss Moses in Brunswick.

 

I’m almost first through the door at Miss Moses but pipped at the last second as I simultaneously try to remove my sunglasses and fumble for my phone so I can check in and show off my vaccination status. The guy who beats me, Matt, lives around the corner and says he’s pretty used to the walk from home, even if he hasn’t been doing it as regularly in recent times. 

“I know how to time the walk perfectly," he says, "it’s five minutes from door to door.”  

The last time I was here was to submit my tips for a footy season that wrapped up about a month ago. I was local then too, having moved suburbs during a lockdown, but on walking through that door in Sydney Road, seeing the brass font and feeling the wooden floorboards underneath, it still feels like my local.

I could probably sketch you each iteration of the bar, each time a table has been moved, or the beer garden has been switched up. And, if you needed the detail, I could also tell you the texture of their potato cakes – a highlight of lockdown two when I was within their delivery range – in great and fond detail.   

Owner James Knox (pictured above) says that, just like each time they’ve emerged from lockdown, the vibe has always been one he's enjoyed soaking in.

“Every single first shift after a reopen has been my favourite customer service experience ever,” he says, “and the next one normally trumps it. And then the one after that trumps it too.

“You just get this steady stream of people coming in who are catching up with mates they haven’t seen in forever and drinking beer from a glass on a bar stool. There’s rarely a moment where you don’t have multiple teary-eyed customers.”

Like Sydney’s reopening a couple of weeks ago, the difference this time around is that these good times are for the fully vaccinated only. While James calls it a new challenge, he’s not too concerned about the impact on him and the team.

“We’ve never really had any problems when the masks came in, or QR sign-ins became a thing or anything like that,” he says. “So, I think there will be an alright response to the vaccine mandate.”

 

Happy customers back in the Miss Moses beer garden for the first time in a long time.

 

In Victoria, daily case numbers remain high, but the state, along with the rest of Australia, continues to record rapidly rising vaccination rates, a situation that has James hopeful there will be no more lockdowns.

“There’s a very quiet part of my brain that’s optimistic that this might be the last big one for some time.”

Lockdown six, along with each lockdown before it, has seen the Miss Moses team fully embrace the switch from welcoming people through the doors to acting as a bottleshop and food and booze delivery company. They’ve kept each of their ten taps pouring beers for growler fills, and have travelled across neighbouring postcodes to pour pints and serve piping hot parmas in regulars’ driveways.

“About a week before the first lockdown, about a week before the pubs shut for the very first time, we’d already made the decision to pivot – I can’t believe I just said pivot – into a bottleshop and takeaway model,” he says, explaining that the move was essential for many reasons, including keeping staff employed and engaged, and ensuring their locals still felt connected too.  

“Whether it’s a weekend or a week, a month or more, we finish pouring pints and the next day we open up as loudly as possible under the bottleshop and takeaway banner,” James says.

“Miss Moses is a neighbourhood bar, a local community place, not a destination. It’s hard to translate that into a takeaway and delivery model but if you’re going to do it then you’ve got to go pretty hard on it.

“It’s a shadow of the real existence but it is something and I think it’s been pretty good for most people.”

There’s an electric feeling in the air today now that community has returned. James greets regulars who walk in like old mates, asking how their kids are doing, what’s new.

For all the buzz in the air, and the fact his staff are looking forward to the week ahead, he says the return to something approaching normal hospo life will come with challenges.

“They’ve been out of shifts for so long and just getting by on disasters payments from the government,” James says, “and then the pubs reopen and they get thrown into the rinser straight away while everyone is out celebrating.”

A reminder, if any was needed, to be kind, respectful and considerate if you’re the one out celebrating your hard won freedoms. Will Ziebell


 

When Melbourne first reopened after its second lengthy lockdown in late 2020, I booked a table at The Park in Abbotsford for a first proper date night with my wife since her birthday in March. It was only as we settled into the front bar that I realised this was also the last pub I’d been to in March for a quick refuel before catching New Order at the Sidney Myer Bowl.

While this neat book-ending wasn’t planned, it also isn’t that surprising. The Park is one of the best pubs in Melbourne for anyone interested in all the things pubs offer – drinks, food, atmosphere, service – done extremely well.

For the past few years, it’s been run by Sam Howard and Ed Harley (above left preparing for reopening), a couple with a long history in Melbourne beer and hospo that between them takes in running brewery venues for Mountain Goat and Moon Dog, helping turn The Terminus in Fitzroy North into a craft beer destination, and operating The Royston, in Richmond, which they still do to this day.

Looking ahead to 4pm today, when they’ll welcome the first guests into the pub and beer garden, Ed’s hopes are simple.

“I just want hospitality to be fun again,” he says. “The reason we do this job is because people come into our pub, have a nice beer and a good meal in a friendly atmosphere, and that’s a really fun experience. It’s just a fun job, and it’s not fun at the moment.”

 

It's not what a pub is about, but The Park and Royston teams certainly embraced takeaway through lockdown. Pictured: Royston venue manager Mark Brown.

 

As he points out, before COVID he and Sam were a married couple running two cool pubs, making a little bit of money, but more than that living a lifestyle they enjoyed, surrounded by people they loved working with, and bringing joy to customers. For most of the past two years, however, that’s been taken away from them and their peers throughout Melbourne’s hospitality community.

Yet, having made it through to today’s reopening with their heads just about above water, he’s nothing if not philosophical.

“You can get into a mindset of saying how hard it has been for you, and this train of thought that perpetuates, but I think you can also take a moment and find a bit of perspective. There’s so much in our situation we can be thankful for,” he says.

“If we had a venue in the city, how hard that would be? We’re quite lucky to have neighbourhood pubs in good neighbourhoods where people are working from home.

“We’re so lucky with how many staff are still with us; as shit as it’s been for us, it’s been so shit for them.”

Even as pubs reopen, the reality for hospo workers is different to that of summer 2019/20. As Ed points out, they didn’t sign up to check vaccine passports, for example. But the industry has proven to be incredibly resilient and flexible.

In the case of the Park and Royston, they launched a joint takeaway offering called The Park Royale, which brought structure to their week, kept the team together – even able to enjoy the pleasures of a knock-off beer at the end of a takeaway shift, and gave their customers the chance to walk to the pub for a chat as they picked up their food and fresh-from-the-tap growlers.

“Takeaway isn’t what a pub is about,” Ed points out. “It’s about people sitting at your bar, and welcoming those people back to sitting in the bar is a really exciting thing.

“There are going to be challenges ahead for us and we just hope we can put the fun back in hospitality we’ve missed over the past two years. It will be great – it’s just a repeat of last year, isn’t it? Hopefully a fantastic summer for everybody.” JS


Inner North Brewing Co in Brunswick, where Will Ziebell enjoyed his last pre-lockdown tap beer.

 

When I’m finished at Miss Moses, my next stop is Inner North Brewing, a few blocks down the road and the scene of the last tap beer I enjoyed before Melbourne’s venues and breweries had to close for the latest lockdown. I’ll be there when they open at 4pm, with owner Zack Skerritt unsure of just how busy they’ll be with the start and end of each lockdown always feeling a little different from the previous one.

Like James, Zack isn’t too concerned about vaccine requirements, saying they’re used to screening people at the bar, whether to make sure they’re over 18 or not incapitated with drink. Among his bigger concerns are what the future holds, with the state government providing little detail about how the world will look after this lockdown. It means future bookings are difficult to manage and so too are the expectations of people who know the state is reopening but are unaware much of the detail still hasn’t been confirmed.

“Probably the most frustrating thing about it is not so much the enforcing the rules you know about but not being able to anticipate the future rules,” he says. “Everyone wants to book but you don’t know what the parameters are.

“I’ve got people who want to book weddings in for late December and, at that stage, we don’t know anything after the rules change on November 5.”

 

As Inner North's 3.55 pm line shows, locals were excited to see their brewpub back.

 

Adding further frustration for Zack is the fact that, despite qualifying for government support during this lockdown, none of it has yet arrived in his bank account and he hasn’t been able to confirm why.  

“My case has been with the ‘escalation team’, as they call it, for months now,” Zack says, explaining that, without the money, he’s had to treat every move this lockdown with great caution.

“In the press conferences they make it sound like, ‘We’ve approved this support, it’s out the door, and this much money is out there’ when in reality it’s not that simple for a lot of us.

“I could have leaned into the lockdowns differently and done some renovation work or given my casual staff more hours.

“Businesses have been hustling like crazy and so have individuals but it feels like every level of government hasn’t really been hustling, they’ve always been a few steps behind.”

Support from locals has been as strong as in 2020, if not better, but he concedes the ongoing lockdowns have been draining.

“In some ways, you have less to do and you aren’t working as hard but it’s almost more exhausting trying to do it. And I think it’s because the weekends don’t really mean anything, so you don’t really recharge.”

Although he’s understandably happy to be reopening the doors of his community brewpub, Zack’s hopeful for the future but feels like it’s going to take a long time for business certainty to return.

“I don’t know I’ll believe it until about a year from now, and that’s about how long it will take until I have full business confidence.” WZ


Moon Dog founders Karl van Buuren, Jake and Josh Uljans enjoying beers as Moon Dog World reopened.

 

Had it not been for the pandemic, Moon Dog would already have two more venues like their vast and lagooned Moon Dog World in Preston operating in other parts of Melbourne. They were aiming to have plans for another two on top of those well underway by now too, so it’s fair to say COVID has been a bitter pill to swallow.

Sure, they’ve launched their Fizzer seltzers with huge success in the meantime and are selling more beer than ever before, but they picked one heck of a moment to open a 700-plus capacity venue. That said, even with a capacity of just 70 until restrictions ease further – not to mention a personal last minute COVID scare and the fact the pump for the lagoon fountain broke this morning – co-founder Josh Uljans prefers to look on the bright side as he enjoys drinks by the lagoon with brother Jake and fellow founder Karl van Buuren.

“When we came in here earlier, Jake said, ‘Look around. It’s only 70 people but the first place they wanted to come after lockdown finished was here.’ And that’s a really lovely and special thing,” Josh says.

“People are just stoked to get back in here. To get back in anywhere.

“I do feel optimistically that it’s the end of a very strange 18 months. It’s just a quite extraordinary feeling to be looking positively forward to an amazing summer.

“It feels like Melbourne deserves this day.” JS


As the day kicks into gear, the hustling of group chats begins to fire red hot as my disorganised friends try to work out where they’re going for a drink after work and where they could possibly grab a spot over the weekend. 

“We could probably sneak into Fixation before Molly Rose, I don’t think they take bookings.”

“How much outdoor space does The Gem have again?”

“Why don’t we get there at exactly 4pm – that’s when they open the doors and nobody else will think of that.”

Considering they've had more than ten weeks to prepare for this moment, and five days armed with the knowledge venues were opening today, you'd think such a last minute scramble would have been avoidable. Then again, you know we'll find somewhere to go. And if we don't, there's always the next day. Or next week.

Who knows, Melbourne, maybe this time we've got the rest of our lives?


You can find more reopening coverage here

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