It takes a brave person – or group of people – to take on a Melbourne icon like The Espy. This is, after all, a city where 10,000 people took to the streets in 2010 to protest the closure of another much-loved live music venue, The Tote. But the Sand Hill Road group has never been shy of a challenge. Its conversion of the former Rosati restaurant in Flinders Lane to the hugely popular multi-level Garden State Hotel is a case in point. The group's track record includes similarly drastic (and successful) makeovers of eight other venues across town.
Next up is St Kilda's heritage-listed Hotel Esplanade, which has been shuttered since May 2015. The group is taking an "all things to all people" approach to the 140-year-old pub, with an ambitious plan for 10 venues within the building, including some on the upper levels, which have never been open to the public.
According to Sand Hill director Andy Mullins they're "not trying to please one market".
"Different types of people there for different reasons, day and night," he says. "That's always been the Espy – a melting pot of Melbourne."
Live entertainment remains a priority under the new regime with three stages, including a refurb of the famed Gershwin Room, home of SBS show Rockwiz.
The most radical change is the food offer. The Espy's new food headliners include a casual dining kitchen kitted out with pizza ovens, rôtisseries and charcoal grills that will pump out pub favourites. It will also be responsible for food carts that will be stationed outside the Gershwin Room selling hotdogs to famished and/or over-refreshed punters.
Upstairs, there'll be a Cantonese restaurant and cocktail bar called Mya Tiger, an enormous garden terrace with a retractable roof and views of St Kilda pier and, on the top floor, a dedicated cocktail bar called The Ghost of Albert Felton, named for a former permanent resident of the hotel.
Designed by Techne architects (the firm behind Lee Ho Fook and Tonka, among other Melbourne venues) and kitted out with 19th-century furniture and artefacts found on a worldwide shopping spree, the new-look Espy should be back in action by this summer. It could be the year's most closely watched opening.
Hotel Esplanade, 11 The Esplanade, St Kilda, Vic, hotelesplanade.com.au