Bar culture returns to Russell Place

By Rhonda Dredge

The CBD’s bar scene is cracking back into life thanks to some swift think- ing by owners such as Ben Luzz who know how to appeal to regulars.

Ben is part-owner of the Gin Palace on Russell Place and the bar opened on the dot of midnight as soon as restrictions were lifted.

But unlike other venues which insisted on bookings, Ben took a risk. “When we came at midnight and had a line out of the venue I was over-joyed. I teared up,” he said.

The cellar bar is small so they thought bookings would be best after the first lockdown, but people sat on their drinks for too long.

“When we opened last time, we were down 40 per cent,” Ben said. “The numbers [in the venue] are re- stricted. It’s a lot smaller than normal trading.”

For the second opening they served customers off the street while main- taining safety standards. “We went back to the normal process and the drinks per head sped up.”

The more free form approach by the Gin Palace and its neighbour Bar Ampere, also owned by Ben, is appealing to regulars who like to pop in unannounced.

One customer Nicki Mitchell-Adams rented a maxi-taxi from Sandringham and met eight girlfriends at the Gin Palace on its opening night for their first drink out in months.

She said she rang around on the day restrictions were due to lift, but other bars weren’t open.

“I rang the Gin Palace and came in as soon as I heard. They had 20 guests inside in a couple of shifts. The sheer joy of being there. You could feel the lift in spirits.”

Nicki calls herself a “marvellous Melbourne meanderer”. “I love Melbourne. I’m a huge supporter of tourism, a massive foodie and bar lover,” she said.

She said she passed one bar that night that was too small to have people inside, so they put their tables out in the lane. Nicki was back in again two days later taking pictures of the city shops as they came back to life. In the lead-up to the lifting of restrictions on October 27, Ben worked with others in the laneway and put in a proposal to the City of Melbourne to close Russell Place.

“We applied for the road originally,” he said, but it was too complicated with the carpark opposite.

Bar Ampere now spills out onto the footpath. In the past the council has rejected applications for tables on the footpath because of pedestrian access.

"We applied for it before. The council said no but with restrictions they are activating outdoor spaces."

The Gin Palace has negotiated the use of a small open-air car park further down the lane, which will open in two weeks.

By the end of November with temperatures still hovering above 30 degrees in the evening, a casual drink in Russell Place was high on the list for CBD afficionados.

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