When we speak to him in November 2016, Frank van Haandel is excited. And a little freaked out. The remarkable $13 million-plus building that houses Stokehouse Precinct, the reincarnation of his St Kilda foreshore restaurant that was destroyed by fire three years ago, is nearing completion. And he's acutely aware of the weight of expectation. "To be quite honest it's bloody scary."
After the fire in January 2014, the interest in the restaurant's fate was such that it trended on Google for five days. For Melbourne, the reaction was not surprising. After van Haandel and his brother John won the tender on the 110-year-old building in 1989, Stokehouse grew to become one of a tiny handful of the city's restaurants that could legitimately be called landmarks.
The former interior of Stokehouse.
Van Haandel says it was a "celebratory space", loved by people from all walks of life, especially brides, business folk and fans of bombe Alaska. It was also a restaurant with great views in a town not renowned for them, with a breezy, beachy sophistication that felt like a holiday.
With nearly 25 years of memories invested in the original timber structure, it might've made sense to try to recapture its look in the new building, which encompasses the upper-level fine-diner, the more casual entry-level bar and grill, now dubbed Pontoon, and a new fish-and-chip kiosk, Paper Fish. But van Haandel, an operator with a background in retail fashion and the soul of a "frustrated industrial designer" has no interest in replicas.
Paper Fish, Stokehouse's take away fish and chip eatery.
"Whether you're talking a replica painting or replica furniture or a replica Ferrari, it just never works out that successfully," he says. "And we used to refer to the old building as Stokey Towers because of its shortcomings - it leaked, pigeons found their way into the roof, the air-conditioning never really worked properly.
"But the real truth for me is that my ego came into it." Van Haandel saw the project as a rare opportunity to do something new and different on the St Kilda foreshore, "something unique and dramatic which would be like a legacy and might draw people into the area".
The spectre of a monument to ego on the St Kilda foreshore would be a worry were it not for van Haandel's track record as a restaurateur with an unusually good eye for aesthetics. His work on The Prince, Circa, Comme, Fatto, Mr Tulk and Brisbane's Stokehouse Q shows a consistent appreciation of architecture and interior design that's sophisticated, relaxed and timeless - and sympathetic with its setting. It's a key element of the van Haandel style.
Paper Fish's tempura fried fish with chips, seasoned crinkle cut chips, cucumber salad and granitas.
"I've always spent a lot of money on design - it's something that I think I've inherited from my mother - and that's given us longevity," van Haandel says. "By paying attention to quality design, materials and workmanship, we not only can keep a fit-out for years before it needs a revamp but we've also, almost by default, created a brand."
This approach didn't make the rebuild any easier.
Van Haandel asked six architects with experience in coastal projects to tender for the job, the better to deal with the challenges of building on a sandy foreshore. The site being Crown Reserve added layers of complexity. Van Haandel had already negotiated a labyrinthine process with insurance companies and the local council that included "close community consultation so that we had a good idea of what the public wanted and expected, what they loved about the old Stokehouse, what they wanted at the new one". It was an "amazingly frustrating and angry and agonising" three years of dealing with all the authorities to get the green light.
Architect Robert Simeoni's bold design for the new building was by no means the path of least resistance. But it was chosen, van Haandel says, because it was the most dramatic and different. "It's design on a global scale with a sense of theatre, and it's like nothing else in the world."
From left: Andrew, Hugh, Sharon, Alex, Frank and Peter van Haandel.
It's a beautiful building, elegant in raw concrete, its two layers separated by a 1.6-metre gap. A huge man-made dune at the entrance screens the bottom level of the building (which houses Pontoon and Paper Fish) from the street, so the top floor appears to float above the sand. The rooms are bigger, as are its windows, the views more expansive. The upstairs flagship restaurant now has a large lounge-bar, which will be open all day serving oysters and sashimi shucked and cut, respectively, to order.
Van Haandel's immersion in the project is deep, and his handle on the details is impressive. He's as excited about the engineering of the thousand-tonne concrete slab supporting the building as he is its five-star green energy rating, its four-metre custom-built grill or the 18 craft beers in a glassed-in climate controlled keg room downstairs. He sounds more proud parent than empire-builder when he talks about it.
There's also no small suggestion of a sense of relief in his voice that the project is nearing completion. It's been a rollercoaster few years, not least because the Stokehouse fire caused another loss - its timing meant van Haandel was forced to pull out of the tender he'd won for the Bennelong restaurant at the Sydney Opera House, after an intense and heavily scrutinised 10-month application process.
"It hurt a lot," he says. "But Stokehouse St Kilda was our flagship and we had to restore that. We throw our heart and soul into everything we do and so we thought it was imperative that we bring back the best possible building design offer we could
deliver… But we're still really keen on going to Sydney at some point."
The fire also led him to shed the city property that was once home to Comme and then Stokehouse City, a business that never really flew, he says, "because we were so distracted that I think we took our eye off the ball a little".
Focus has been entirely present in St Kilda - imperative where there's not one but three designers bringing it to fruition. The interiors of Robert Simeoni's building have been designed by Pascale Gomes- McNabb, responsible for the Stokehouse upstairs refit before the fire, and George Livissianis, the Sydney designer with such high-profile designs as The Apollo, the Dolphin Hotel and Billy Kwong under his belt, is looking after downstairs.
"We wanted to create two different businesses with a completely different feel and appeal," says van Haandel. "We didn't want the same signature throughout the building."
The approach to food has been just as considered. Van Haandel's track record in this department is impressive, and he counts the respected likes of Andrew McConnell, Ben Shewry, Philippa Sibley, Matt Wilkinson and Michael Lambie as alumni of his kitchens.
"One of the most important factors in our success over the years is that we've never been shy to go after quality operators," he says. "And while I'm not claiming any credit for their success, I find it completely gratifying that we have played a part in helping some very talented individuals to find a path and their potential."
Ollie Hansford, a British-born chef who has worked at Stokehouse Q and Stokehouse City, will be in charge of menus upstairs. They'll be strongly biased towards seafood and "fresh, clean, vibrant flavours".
Downstairs at Pontoon, the mood is "Mediterranean grill". The grill itself is complemented by a smoker and rôtisserie with seafood, quail, chicken, lamb and vegetables offered in an "affordable, approachable" way that van Haandel hopes will attract a strong local following.
It's not just another neighbourhood to Frank van Haandel, another target demographic, another project.
"I've always been passionate about St Kilda," he says. "And I always thrive on a challenge."