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Outstanding Contribution to the Industry 2009: Donlevy Fitzpatrick

You don’t need to be old to appreciate so many things we take for granted were simply not possible 25 years ago. Take Victoria’s liberal – and enlightened – licensing laws, in relation to consuming beverages with or without food, for example. It wasn’t that long ago that pubs provided the only glimmer of opportunity when it came to casual, sensible drinking without having to order a meal. For those who found the sound of an extracted cork preferable to the sound of the dogs on the radio, it wasn’t a great scenario.

It took many forward-thinking, determined people to change that and a key player among them was the late Donlevy Fitzpatrick: an engineer; restaurateur; property developer; and vigneron. Mostly, however, Don Fitzpatrick was a dreamer who didn’t see why his vision of making Melbourne more European – for want of a better expression – wasn’t possible.

In the late 70s, he acquired shops in the inner bayside suburb of Middle Park. Recognising how staid the city’s food and beverage industry was, and that casual dining and drinking was largely restricted to the hotel industry, he opened his first restaurant, Donlevy’s. It was a wonderful place, launched many careers in food and wine, and is widely regarded as one of Melbourne’s first modern café-style restaurants.

The Vic Ave Cafe in Albert Park followed, and St Kilda was next. Fitzpatrick adopted the raffish suburb early, and embarked on several renovation projects including the Harley Court and Colombo Court buildings in Acland Street, home to the still-famous Dogs Bar. It was here, through persistent lobbying, he succeeded in changing liquor licensing to allow drinking without a meal so long as food was available, as well as the licensing of outdoor seating areas. But the George Hotel in Fitzroy Street became Fitzpatrick’s greatest challenge. In the early 90s, he bought a number of buildings that formed the dilapidated 1860s complex, gaining council support for a mix of restaurants, bars, cafés and residential apartments. The Melbourne Wine Room became its flagship. The complex, and its many businesses, launched the careers of many restaurant industry players including chefs Karen Martini and Jeremy Strode. Ultimately, Fitzpatrick was a pioneer; he made St Kilda what it is today.

“The liquor law changes came about as a result of his tenacious determination to ask the question, ‘Why the bloody hell not?’,” chef and close friend George Biron, of Sunnybrae at Birregurra, said. “Every time you shared anything with him – a coffee, a drink – he lent a sense of occasion.”

Michael Kennedy, whose Healesville Hotel has become a pivotal player in the Yarra Valley food and wine business, worked with Fitzpatrick at the Dogs Bar and the George. He described him as a “manic” ideas man with lots of energy. “He was a visionary and an inspiration,” Kennedy said. “What he created in St Kilda was well and truly ahead of its time and I think all of Melbourne has him to thank for the café/bar culture that we have.”

Fitzpatrick lost his six-year battle with brain cancer in February, aged 61.

His contribution will last much longer.

WORDS JOHN LETHLEAN PHOTOGRAPHY FAIRFAX PHOTOS

This article appeared in the September 2008 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.

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