The Vine Hotel on Wellington Street in Fitzroy set its foundations way back in 1896, serving the locals well for many a year. It’s the type of pub where your dad or grandfather would easily settle into the woodwork, pint in hand and chewing the fat. Today, it still is olde worldy, but is slowly pushing its way into the 21st century. At the hull of the ship is chef Ron O’Bryan and his wife Kirsty, who leads FOH. Ron comes from Church Street Enoteca, NorthSouth and The Rising Sun, and has been on the search for a place to call his own. He finally settled on The Vine and, though it is only a short stroll from Collingwood and Fitzroy, it does feel a little like it is on the road less travelled.
Taking over a historic pub, the pair’s first thoughts weren’t: “Let’s gut the place and modern-Melbournise it.” Rather, they set themselves apart by taking the path of ‘same same but different’. Walking in the front doors takes you back in time to a pub with wooden panelling and exposed brick, mismatched stools and chairs, and a menu that is painted onto a few chalkboards. Why fix it if it ain’t broke?
But Ron is a man peering into the crystal ball of the future and he naturally wants to put his touch on a place. He and his wife have done all of the refurbishments so far with the little spare time they have had on their hands. They have their loyal following who come for their steak. So rather than push them away, Ron has approached the same meat producers that Neil Perry uses for Rockpool and is serving meaty dinners for a much more affordable price. He will also be doing away with most of the chalkboards to allow him to develop a menu that can push a few more boundaries and educate the clientele in the process.
A few of us headed over for the Back to the Future dinner, which featured dishes we are all familiar with in an attempt to prove they still had clout enough to be kept on the menu.
Firstly, on platters, came oysters Kilpatrick, mini steak and kidney pies and circa 1980s garlic bread. Nostalgia hit everyone in waves. This was how it was done in the good old days they were saying – only this time around it wasn’t so dodgy. It was food made with care and flavour in mind.
Roast duck with orange sauce was cooked to perfection and just the right size portion.
Surf and turf was the classic pub meal that you have completely forgotten about due to the proliferation of gastropubs in recent years. This dish harkened back to the day when you were trying to find a place to take your dad for Fathers’ Day and you had to ask you mum where he would enjoy it most. Medium-rare steak, fat juicy prawn on top, well balanced sauce, chips and salad. Job done.
Going it alone as a small business owner is difficult enough but Ron knows what he likes, what the punters like and what he can afford to push the boundaries with. As much as he loves The Builders Arms, this place will never develop into that soulless beast.
Another step in the right direction is the development of the Derby & Well Pop-Up evenings. These are a guerilla restaurant concept that fuses modern technique and innovative cooking with boutique and small batch wines. The evenings are held by sommelier and FOH partner Anthony Langdon.
Derby & Well Pop-Ups take place on the second Tuesday and Wednesday each month and will feature the up-and-coming chefs of Melbourne – allowing them to break rank from what they are currently tied to in their dining establishment. The five-course degustation is $79pp with matched wines at an additional $48. Seats are limited to just 30 people a session – so whether you head for a feed or choose the adventurous degustation, you are in good hands.