Gimlet at Cavendish House is Andrew McConnell's first new venue opening in five years, and it's likely been the most nail-biting. The drama unfolded in March, the Melbourne CBD restaurant-bar was initially slated to open, just as the country went into lockdown.
Restrictions eased on 1 June, allowing 20 diners in Victorian restaurants. Today, McConnell and other large-format Melbourne restaurants were due to celebrate this cap being increased to 50 people. These celebrations crumbled to ash on the weekend when, after a recent spike in COVID-19 cases in the state, the Victorian government deferred the scheduled easing of restaurant restrictions.
The eleventh hour news has put a question mark over its planned 1 July opening. So, in the coming weeks, Gimlet at Cavendish House will open for "preview" dining, where patrons can book for a set menu for lunch or dinner. This format is scheduled to run until 12 July – an extremely tentative end date, but one by which the Victorian government would have reviewed current physical distancing restrictions.
So if McConnell's learnt anything from the chapter of his life titled How To Open a Restaurant During a Pandemic, it's that he's good at playing the waiting game.
"It's been a longer haul than expected, but I've learnt to be patient during lockdown," says McConnell. "I think if we opened a few weeks before lockdown, it would have been very damaging financially. It would have been difficult to start, stop and then start again."
And after that, if nothing else goes awry, the grand opening of Gimlet at Cavendish House – for real, this time – will happen in mid-July. Step into Gimlet, and you might choose a seat at the central bar, where a cavalcade of oysters and Martinis could be your template of the afternoon or evening; the leather booths, for longer, lounge-ier stays; or the white-clothed tables for a restaurant-proper experience. The food is Euro-bistro-leaning, the oven in the kitchen is wood-fired, and the wine list (by GT's sommelier of the year Leanne Altman) is extensive. "It's a dedicated bar, but if you want to eat in the dining room, you can do that as well," says McConnell. "I like to give people the opportunity to create their own adventure."
Cocktails? We thought you'd never ask. There's the classics, and then some. The Gimlet, that gin-and-lime concoction that's the venue's namesake, is reimagined by head bartender Cameron Parish with gin, a touch of moscato, and syrup made with seven different types of citrus (grapefruit, lemon, lime, yuzu, bergamot, finger lime and desert lime, for those playing at home). "The classic Gimlet is only two basic ingredients, but it's one of the more difficult cocktails to balance and get right. It's quite amazing what Cameron's done with it," says McConnell.
Cavendish House building stands on the corner of Russell Street and Flinders Lane, within cooee of Chin Chin, Hazel, Kisumé and Supernormal, the modern Asian canteen of McConnell's Trader House group. She's a grand old dame too, a 1920s building replete with neo-Georgian and Art Deco detailing. "The canvas really had its own soul in the beginning," says Caroline Choker who, along with fellow Acme co-founder Vince Alafaci, was recruited to work the ground-floor room. Columns demarcate the room into discrete sections – bar seating, booths, dining tables – while retaining its open-plan feel; soaring moulded ceilings and leather, velvet, and marble touches bring old-world elegance. Philodendrons droop delicately from the walls, while honeycomb chandeliers are strategically positioned within the frames of the tall windows, enticing outsiders with their warm glow. "When you're in that space there's a sense of warmth and tranquility and being immersed," says Alafaci. "Even though it's quite grand, it doesn't feel so overwhelming."
Gimlet sets itself quite apart from McConnell's predecessors. His flagship restaurant Cutler & Co celebrated its tenth birthday last year, and McConnell regards it as a designated dining space, open primarily for dinner. Gimlet, on the other hand, is open for lunch till late, "a bar first, and a dining room second." Its corner location in the CBD was what attracted McConnell in the first place; a place to be immersed, animated, and enlivened by the Melbourne city, cocktail in hand. It's a city that has hit pause for now, but restaurateurs like McConnell hope it'll record-scratch itself into life once again. "The hustle and bustle will return. I'm pretty confident," he says. "We just have to be patient."
Gimlet at Cavendish House, 33 Russell St, Melbourne, VIC, 3000
Gimlet at Cavendish House will open for preview bookings; Tue–Sun for dinner from 6pm ($85 per person), and Fri–Sun for lunch from noon ($70 per person). The date for when preview bookings will be open is to be confirmed. Booking via phone only, (03) 9277 9777. More information at gimlet.melbourne
Gimlet at Cavendish House is slated to officially open to the general public in mid-July.