148 Gertrude St
|Opening hours||Wed-Sat 3pm-late, Sun 1pm-late|
|Features||Bar, Licensed, Groups, Private dining, Vegetarian friendly|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
Serial publican Tracey Lester didn’t get the Melbourne memo about dressing in black. Her latest venue – a corner hotel built in 1854 – is painted with rainbow lightning bolts on the outside and the interior is a bold blast of gaudy glamour dominated by wall-mounted glass domes (1800 of them) flocked with spray-on velvet.
It’s a bit Ziggy Stardust, a little fever dream, and entirely exuberant and fun. I can’t imagine anyone staying grumpy while seated here on a black banquette tucked among rampant greenery in an electric purple glow.
If anyone knows how Gertrude Street eats, drinks and parties, it’s Tracey Lester. She first worked here in the 1990s when her parents owned Rhubarbs restaurant. She turned it into noughties bar Yelza, where the Fitzroy Beer Garden is now.
Lester had two stints in charge of the Builders Arms and – not just a Fitzroy gal – she also runs Carlton Club in the city (interior: psychedelic jungle) and the Windsor Castle (pink elephants on the roof).
The Gertrude Hotel is slicker than an old-school pub but not as poised or service-driven as destination restaurants on this strip. If you want a place for a group catch-up, a cosy date or an easy dinner, it’s likely to work. The private bar and rooftop are ready to host that party you cancelled five times in lockdown.
Chef Serradan Sharp (ex-Press Club, Maze) is doing well-worked tasty food that checks off pub bases (calamari, cheeseburger, porterhouse with bearnaise) before darting off into dishes that would be at home in a smart wine bar.
Comte tapioca fritters are golden and oozy, a gluten-free cuboid take on mac and cheese, and blessed relief from ubiquitous arancini.
The crumpet is one of many appealing vegan dishes. Macadamia is used to make nut milk for the batter, and also ground to nut butter that’s slathered on the crumpet. Over that, crispy saltbush and fresh shiitake mushrooms, caramelised then deglazed with soy and sherry vinegar.
You quickly realise this is adept food that showcases an engaged curiosity around ingredients and cuisine.
Two dishes hero a vegetable. Salt-baked swede is served with swede puree, swede crisps, discs of fresh apple, mushroom XO sauce and a lime oil dressing. It’s a gorgeous autumnal assembly and the flavours are beautifully layered.
For the other hero veg dish, eggplants are blackened over coal then marinated in soy, mirin and miso dressing, recalling the Japanese classic nasu dengaku.
But the dish is plated with hummus, roasted capsicum and hazelnuts, steering it into Moorish territory. I love the references but I’m transported by the texture and taste: it’s a great plate of food.
Lester has a thing for juice and she’s cogitating cool mocktails with adaptogenic leanings for herbal highs.
Meantime, there’s a boutique wine list and frolicsome retro cocktails (think Charlie Chaplin with sloe gin, apricot brandy, lime).
The Gertrude Hotel does pub properly but also gives it a canny twist. It’s a place for the people, jaunty, joyful and colour-blocked for jubilation.