After four goes at designing Stokehouse, Pascale Gomes-McNabb is still stoked on beach house chic.
Story: Mark Davie
30 Jacka Boulevard, St Kilda, VIC
(03) 9525 5555 or www.stokehouse.com.au
When the original Stokehouse burned down, the management team immediately scrambled together a marquee to cover any pre-booked weddings they couldn’t relocate at short notice. Going from heritage-listed beach house chic to a white vinyl tent wasn’t exactly the dream scenario for anyone involved, but they made it work. With the temporary instalment sorted, it brought up the question, ‘What made the Stokehouse?’ Was it the beachside location? The heritage-listed surrounds? The interiors? Or the staff who put food and drinks on the table?
Owner Frank van Haandel quickly devised a lab to test those theories, gutting another family venue, Comme, in favour of the now-homeless eldest child. Stokehouse City immediately wiped one of the four criteria off the table; there was no beach in sight. Still, the Alfred Place building sure had heritage, having housed one of Melbourne hospitality’s finest mainstays — Mietta’s.
Stokehouse City has since been sold. It was briefly turned into Cut Bar & Grill, and is now the Alfred Place Melbourne events space run by Rockpool Dining Group. The sale allowed van Haandel to focus on getting the original Stokehouse back on its feet. The striking new building was designed by Robert Simeoni Architects and, as before, is split over two levels. This time though, the second-storey restaurant is propped up on pylons to leave a gap between it and the ground floor casual eatery, Pontoon. It’s a completely different approach to the beach pavilion. Rather than the simple weatherboard shack, which Simeoni modernised when he built the Seaford Life Saving Club, this version is more like a multi-million dollar modernist holiday home poking out of the sand dunes along the coast.
It’s a completely different look to the original building, so venue talked to designer Pascale Gomes-McNabb about how she approached this iteration. Gomes-McNabb knows Stokehouse almost as intimately as Frank van Haandel himself. The is the fourth time she’s worked on a design under that name. Her first take on the restaurant was in 2010, then she designed the ‘pop up’ version at Stokehouse City, after that she was working on Bennelong by Stokehouse at the Sydney Opera House before it was abandoned to divert attention back to rebuilding Stokehouse in its original location.
“I asked Frank, ‘What do you want?’” recalled Gomes McNabb. “He gave me back my brief I’d given to him in 2010. He loved it so much he said, ‘I just want an updated version with all those ideas you have.’” Of course, merely regurgitating the 2010 version was never going to suffice. It became a journey of once again distilling the essence of Stokehouse in an entirely new interior design. “The idea of having luxe and chic design, but really comfortable. Not shabby chic though,” she said, setting a limit on how comfortable is too far in the opposite direction. “Frank wants it to feel as though you can stay all day — to come for lunch and stay until they close, which a lot of people do.” Gomes-McNabb says increasing the length of stay comes down to the place feeling a bit more like accomodation than simply a restaurant. “People come from all over Melbourne, and it’s almost like walking into a holiday,” she said. “It’s not just going to a restaurant to eat. You’re having an experience that’s like a mini holiday by the beach. You feel completely removed from everything else that you’ve done on that day or that week.”
It’s a level of detachment that’s not just about being on the beach. Though it’s undoubtedly a key difference when most other restaurants are just off the street. “It’s that old-fashioned sense of going to a place of celebration — there is an entrance, there is somebody at reception, they can take your coat. There’s an unfolding journey you go on as a diner, rather than just being a perfunctory duty you have to perform.
“The view’s captivating,” she added. “It’s also quite casual and the staff make it that way, the kitchen is open long hours, which makes you feel like you can just keep going.” The lounge and terrace areas really promote a long stay. Once you’ve spent the afternoon indulging in fine food, you can retire to a sofa on the terrace — just like the one you’d fall into for an afternoon nap at the beach house — or sink into an inflatable Featherston Obo sphere.
SETTING THE BAR IN ALL FACETS
Near the beginning of the journey is the multi-faceted marble bar. As well as serving as the bar for the lounge, terrace alfresco area and main dining room, it’s also an oyster bar and doubles as the restaurant’s reception desk. It’s an amazingly flexible space, “It fits in absolutely everything they wanted,” said Gomes-McNabb, who broke up the proposed pure oval geometry to make it work in every possible angle. “It flows and the bar actually is very functional because you can get full bar service to every area. We couldn’t make it any bigger because of the space, but we couldn’t make it any smaller because it wouldn’t be functional.”
There were a few non-negotiables in the design. The Fritz Hansen Series 7 chairs had to stay. They last, and remind people of the Stokehouse, was the argument. Mirrors had to be incorporated somewhere, and the way the floor plan flows, with the long dining room has always worked well.
Gomes-McNabb designed the striking tubular chandeliers, then had Mark Douglass build the finished pieces which totalled 2400 individual glass rods. There’s a slight pink wash giving a gentle colour gradation, and at night the overhead lights can change colour and take over the hue.
As a quasi-good luck charm, the walls are clad in rough sawn pine that was all recycled timber from a fire break. “That’s why it’s got huge holes in it,” said Gomes-McNabb. “They bought a whole forest row and chopped it up. Because we’re using huge logs, we couldn’t just say, ‘I only want it to be this wide.’ Still, it’s actually quite beautiful with all the different lengths.”
FAMILY BEACH HOUSE
Hugh van Haandel, son of Frank, has been working in hospitality since he was a bus boy at 14. He worked his way up from there, with stints in the bar, on the floor, and after heading overseas for a year, came back with a new vigour for the family business. He’s now the manager of the upstairs restaurant. While he was involved as a ‘fly on the wall’ in a fair part of the process, he resolutely puts the design decisions in the court of his father and the architects and designers. “At the end of the day it is primarily his venue and his concept, which he tries to deliver,” Hugh said of his father. “He’s got a strong executive team who tease out a lot of different ideas. They’ve got a really good understanding of what materialities work. They really do worry about every little detail — the stitching on the couches, glass elements, durability — it’s well thought out. It might take a little while to reach a decision but they know when they get there.”
Hugh’s attention is primarily directed at what’s happening on the floor. “Being situated on the beach, you allude to that in the style of the room,” he explained. “It’s chic and elegant, but it’s pared back. That same ethos translates to the service. It’s sharp, it’s smart, it’s attentive but it’s also pared back with a relaxed, fun, energetic vibe you’d expect when you come to the beach.”
If you do find yourself wandering down St Kilda Beach, Hugh said the best time to go is just before sunset. “The transition to night time is one of the main aspects here,” he said. “You go from the sun setting, then once it hits pitch black the lighting in here is all soft and coloured. It’s one of the best parts of the day.”
There’s just no way around it — Stokehouse belongs on the beach.
Mark Douglass (Chandeliers):
0414 540 110 or email@example.com
Cult Design (Fritz Hansen):
1300 768 626 or firstname.lastname@example.org
District (Matiazzi Osso Stool):
(03) 9654 1060 or district.com.au
STOKING THE SOUND
Each of the three Stokehouse spaces has its own audio zone and coverage requirements. Pontoon hosts DJs from Thursday to Saturday nights, and the upstairs restaurant also needs the ability to cater for small bands, or speech presentations with clear audio throughout both spaces. Paper Fish needs low level background music in a discreet visual solution that matched the casual vibe of the outdoor space.
Jason Rooney from Eventcraft worked with the NAS Projects Team to design the ultimate audio system for the new Stokehouse.
d&b audiotechnik speakers were chosen for both the Pontoon and fine dining spaces. To compliment the look of the venue, the decision was made to go with ‘DJ trolleys’ in which three d&b 18S subwoofers are mounted. Two d&b Y7P speakers hang from ceiling brackets at the far end of both areas for high quality reproduction of music and speech with the ability to throw the length of the room. d&b 5S speakers are neatly ceiling mounted on custom-made brackets throughout Pontoon, and the larger 8S speakers similarly nested inside ceiling cavities above the fine dining restaurant. For events, DJ performances, or speeches, these ceiling speakers act as time-delayed reinforcements for the Y7Ps to ensure intelligible sound is relayed to room’s far end with coherent phase. Both rooms were acoustically modelled with d&b’s ArrayCalc software to ensure ample audio coverage throughout.
Direct exposure to saltwater spray makes the Paper Fish eating area as harsh as it gets when it comes to loudspeaker environments. NAS suggested the extremely weather-resistant SoundTube XT850 models to service this area. Not only does the XT850 do a great job handling tough outdoor atmospheres, its unique enclosure meant Jason could install the speakers discreetly between rocks and benches for better visual appeal.
Trent Alexander, Project Manager for venue owner Van Haandel Group, is delighted with the final outcome. “We wanted a top-of-the-range system that could facilitate any client requirements without the need to bump in additional gear. The result is better than we expected. We’ve used it for weddings, launches, and other functions that require speeches. The system in Pontoon sounds great turned up when the DJs come in to play. Frank [Van Haandel, the Group boss] was pleasantly surprised at how rich and warm the sound was throughout the building. It’s very even coverage without hot spots and cold spots.”
NAS (d&b, SoundTube): 1800 441 440 or
Eventcraft: 0408 475 964 or www.eventcraft.com.au