139-141 Little Lonsdale St, Melbourne
Story by Cara Devine, our Melbourne-based drinks writer. She is the manager of Bomba in Melbourne and the face and talent behind the cocktailing Youtube channel Behind the Bar. You can email her at email@example.com
One of the best things about Melbourne is the juxtaposition of old and new. Looking down a tree-lined street of Victorian terrace houses to the sparkling skyscrapers of the CBD; watching skateboarders kickflip with the grandiose Exhibition Building on one side and the modernist temple of the Melbourne Museum on the other. At 130 Lonsdale Street a new office building rises, shiny and sleek. But nestled within its curves sits the gothic Wesley Church and its outbuildings, faithfully restored as part of the recent building work, and now providing more than one space to congregate – the religious faithful still have their church, and the drinking faithful now have Caretaker’s Cottage.
The team behind it are the type to inspire devotion. Rob Libecans, Ryan Noreiks and Matt Stirling are industry veterans with world renowned bars on their timesheets. They have been running a successful pop-up and consultancy business under the name Fancy Free for the past few years. But really, they’re just the kind of guys you want to pull up a stool in front of and shoot the breeze – more than happy to help you with your crossword or do the quiz in the paper, I can tell you from experience.
Caretaker’s Cottage is billed as a pub, despite the trio’s high end cocktail pedigree, and a pub is what it feels like. So was this always the plan for their permanent home? ‘We’ve always had a dream of a pub being the last thing we open together, a bit of a retirement plan if you will,’ says Libecans. ‘That was until we saw this venue. We instantly fell in love with it. As for the concept, it could only be a pub. It’s an idiosyncratic building with tucked away spaces and awkward spots that you can really lean into in this concept.’
‘Opening a venue is a special and privileged place to be right now. Having an opportunity to put our best intentions, efforts and experience forward feels super rewarding. Big love to the industry for enduring, we love and respect you all and are so happy to be a part of the big party.’ – Matt Stirling
The space is tiny; two small rooms, dimly lit and cosy (but not twee – they’ve steered clear of cottage-core as the aesthetic), it always feels buzzy. The offering reflects the space: tight, polished and welcoming. As Stirling explains, ‘Guinness is the only thing that never changes. No matter what else we have on offer it outsells everything else, every time. The space is so small that real estate on the menu or back bar is at a premium. If it doesn’t sell, it doesn’t stay. Cocktails change weekly, beers are in and out by the keg and wine is ever growing as we get a greater sense of what people are into.’
Cocktails are well executed and beautiful. The half-a-page list sits lesser known classics such as the Chrysanthemum alongside staples like a great house Martini, and originals that marry modern techniques with great flavour combinations and unfussy serves – yes, the reimagined Cosmo slushy is a good time. There are snacks too – anchovies, meats, and a Welsh Rarebit which makes use of their Guinness keg and plenty of cheese and spice for the ultimate booze-soaker.
The idea of allowing their menu to be influenced by the guests is a confident expression of true hospitality and one which has been honed through their experiences running more temporary businesses. ‘Pop-ups have taught us so much that dramatically impacts our decision making (we think for the better) for our now, more conventional, long lease. They have all functioned as a ‘proving ground’ for us where we take risks and take stock [of] those decisions in a short turn around. We would only do this together, that relationship has been solidified. With the pub, we want things to evolve and for our guests to help shape it,’ elaborates Libecans. ‘Having more time means we can let things grow organically. We have time, we’ll take it. We’ve only been open for a couple of weeks and are just starting to scratch the surface on what we’ll be taught here.’
‘Granted it’s the city that’s taken the greatest hit due to the pandemic with office closures and work from home advice, but that is changing and the city has a heartbeat again. We are so proud to be a small part of that. People are back in the office, venues are pumping and we’re stoked to join places that excite like Pearl Diver and Byrdi that make the city such a great place to go out.’ – Rob Libecans
Perhaps it’s this humble outlook, or the record player spinning ‘top tunes’ (in their own words!) from warm sounding speakers, but Caretaker’s Cottage feels more like a neighbourhood venue than one in the CBD. Of their locale, Libecans explains, ‘We’ve only ever seriously considered being in the city for our first venue. We love it here. There’s a really diverse residential crowd in the city.
‘Granted it’s the city that’s taken the greatest hit due to the pandemic with office closures and work from home advice, but that is changing and the city has a heartbeat again. We are so proud to be a small part of that. People are back in the office, venues are pumping and we’re stoked to join places that excite like Pearl Diver and Byrdi that make the city such a great place to go out.’ The city sure is happy to have you, guys.
Stirling gives me some final thoughts: ‘Opening a venue is a special and privileged place to be right now. Having an opportunity to put our best intentions, efforts and experience forward feels super rewarding. Big love to the industry for enduring, we love and respect you all and are so happy to be a part of the big party.’ So if you’re ever lost in the urban forest of the Melbourne CBD, make your way to this little cottage where the crew really care.