The casual observer of St Kilda's foreshore would scoff at promises that Stokehouse will be right back where it belongs this summer. It's currently a building site where high-vis vests and hard hats rule the day, but the countdown has begun to the early-October launch of part one of the three-part extravaganza that is Stokehouse Precinct.
Fish and chippery Paper Fish will be joined downstairs by the 350-capacity casual diner Pontoon at the end of October, while 6 December is a red-letter day for Melbourne's high-society set, when the upstairs fine-dining restaurant that launched a thousand engagements and business deals reopens for business.
It has been more than two-and-a-half years since the landmark restaurant was destroyed by fire, although according to Stokehouse Group co-owners Frank van Haandel and his wife Sharon, "it feels more like five years". Once their battle with insurers was over, they were faced with the question of whether to try to replicate the Cape Cod-style beach shack or do something completely different. Opting for the latter, the prominent foreshore property along the same strip as Donovans restaurant and St Kilda Surf Lifesaving Club isn't going to be the quaint weatherboard building of old, but a resolutely modern concrete structure designed by architect Robert Simeoni with a five-star green rating when it's complete.
The ground-floor section, now a metre higher than the original building, due to concerns about rising sea levels, is hidden from the traffic on Jacka Boulevard by a man-made sand dune that provides a dramatic entrance to the building. A 1.6-metre gap between the two floors will create the illusion that the upstairs restaurant is levitating above the sand.
Raising the Melbourne dining institution from the ashes has provided the welcome opportunity - albeit at a cost of more than $13 million - to address some of its 25-year-old shortcomings. "We've seized the chance to start again from scratch," says Frank van Haandel. "The Stokehouse had always been a bit limited in its offer, but now we're bringing far more versatility and flexibility into the restaurant. It will be more fun, have more ambience and energy."
Designed by regular Stokehouse collaborator Pascale Gomes-McNabb, the upper level Stokehouse dining room will now feature a bar and lounge area, where up to 70 diners can drop in for a drink, and oysters and sashimi without booking. Echoes of beach-shack chic will come in the form of whitewashed, rough-sawn timber, while timber screens protect diners' eyes from the sun as it sets over the bay.
Choosing a different designer for Pontoon was a deliberate ploy to divorce upstairs from down, says van Haandel. George Livissianis, the go-to guy for Sydney's hippest hangouts (The Apollo, The Dolphin Hotel and Billy Kwong, among others) is behind the look for the more casual bar-grill Pontoon.
The process of recruiting a small army of staff has begun; van Haandel's 29-year-old son, Hugh, last seen on the floor at another van Haandel restaurant, Fatto, is among them in a key management role. Stokehouse Group executive chef Richard Ousby is relocating from Brisbane for three months for the launch, while British expat Ollie Hansford, who headed up the Stokehouse City pop-up during its run at the Alfred Place building in Melbourne, has been appointed head chef.
The Stokehouse team is keeping tight-lipped about the restaurant menu, although Hansford, who made a name for himself at Brisbane's Gauge, says, "It will be 70 percent seafood. The ethos behind the upstairs restaurant is all those buzzwords of fresh, vibrant, clean, zesty and light. You're sitting there looking at the sea and nine times out of 10 you just want to eat seafood."
He does promise one thing: the bombe Alaska will be back. Perhaps it's little surprise this Stokehouse stalwart lives to be toasted another day; van Haandel says he recently calculated how many of the spiky meringue desserts have been sold across Stokehouse Melbourne and Brisbane. "Around 600,000, give or take. I guess you could say it's quite a few, anyway."
Stokehouse Precinct, 30 Jacka Blvd, St Kilda, Vic, (03) 9525 5555, stokehouse.com.au