Espy reborn: track 1, side 2

Day one. The Espy is back! Our local pub, our bay-windowed beauty. Two hours into my first re-visit, new owner Andy spots me reading in an armchair on the fourth floor, shakes my hand, saying ‘this is what we want to see!’ and offers to buy me a drink. ‘Really? A shandy?’ he says. The barman comments, ‘You don’t order a shandy to improve the beer, you order a shandy to improve the lemonade.’ I’m somewhat shamed, shandy-shamed, but I’m revelling in my retro memories, so say cheers, and just drink it all in.

It’s been three years or so that the pub has been closed, and I’ve been time-travelling. I’ve come up the front stairs, past the patio where I used to watch over my sleeping kinder kids in the 15-minute carparks out the front. (Don’t judge me. OK, judge me; don’t care.) Up I go, through the double doors into the light-filled atrium. Down into the new public bar, looking for the old etchings on the windows. Out the back, to the new Espy Kitchen thinking of Uni nights with $10 curries and Espy burgers in the packed dining room, clearing our own plates and stacking them back at the kitchen bench to keep the prices low. There’s table service now, wood-fired pizzas and barbecued meats.

Days and nights of drinking pots in the front bar, bare floorboards, black vinyl chairs, writing letters to overseas boyfriends; bands in the Gershwin Room; pool in the pool room behind the front bar bands; memories of a back yard beer garden/smoking zone * memories could be affected by beer. Now there’s even a podcast studio, chandelier-draped, and a string of booths with headphones playing an Espy soundtrack, or a choice of other tunes. Or do I want to hear history? Strap yourself in and take a ride.

“It is 30 years since the Espy was first saved from the wreckers, and almost 20 since the second lot was fought off,” writes Professor Kate Shaw, who fought to keep the Espy as a local pub and ‘community loungeroom’ throughout the 80s and 90s. Locals in The Espy Alliance crew printed ‘Keep the Espy Live’ t-shirts for fundraisers, screen-printed by Colin Sheppard, who has now done the beautiful art work for the public bar. The loungeroom is open again, and there’s more of it to see than ever before.

There’s the grand staircase, and on the left, the new Balcony Bar, with its own balcony and views of the bay. On day one, the rain was pouring down, grey waves rising and chopping into the rocks of the St Kilda pier breakwater. On a warm evening, I can imagine watching the kite surfers from here, with my beer perched on the ledge.

Light and dark, grey day on day one at The Esplanade Hotel. All photos © Anna Sublet 2018

I find the lift, and transport myself up a glass-walled lift shaft filled with old photos, a portal of Alfred Fenton’s rooms, up, up into a time capsule above. The Mya Tiger restaurant space is not yet open on day one, but the gorgeous green booths in the cocktail bar are watching over the bar as it comes to life, grog flowing in, the smell of alcohol beginning to waft into the space. Mmmmm, that smells good, as I breathe in and out. The carpet makes me feel like I’m floating, so plush, so new, the booth seats beckon, and the original fittings sing: old stained glass windows, cracked plaster, broken boards in odd places.

And then I go up again, walking stairs with old carpet, red-patterned and slightly worn, to the heights of The Ghost of Alfred Felton bar, The Pharmacy and the little hidey-hole rooms where I imagine sharing stories and lounging deep into the night. Alfred Felton, of National Gallery of Victoria ‘Felton Bequest’ fame, lived in these rooms for the last twenty years of his life, surrounded by paintings.

Upstairs, each space seems to offer promise of an encounter. There’s a grand piano in the Pharmacy Bar, and a small dining setting in a corner. I want to sit here, under the glorious painting, and talk of books and writing and politics and music and watch the bay through the sash windows. (Ok, maybe not politics right now.)

In the next room, there’s a glowing red velvet couch, beckoning in an almost threatening way. I don’t dare to lie on it, imagining my feet up as I sink into a state of confession, delusion, obliteration. Best instead to take a seat on an armchair, prop my books and bags beside me, contemplate the gift that is the view of the bay, the sweep of horizon from up here, on the fourth floor.

Sink into oblivion…

It’s like I have lost myself across the five levels in the hours that I was here. I find myself poking around a dark tunnel to seek out the Gershwin Room, which doesn’t look as if it has changed much, and going underground to the basement, walls plastered with band promo posters, the air cool, smelling of concrete dust and water.

Come for the memories, like I did–the music, the beers, the food, the people–stay for the promise, the view, the comfy chairs, the soft carpet, the music, the podcast studios, the paintings, the people, the intimate spaces, the velvet couches, the hidey-hole rooms, the Espy Kitchen and the Mya Tiger cocktail lounge. Visit early, visit often!

Besides the rock n roll and blurry nights of decades ago, I reckon I’ll always have a soft spot for my stolen slots of afternoon time out on the patio. I might only have had a shandy, but the sea was just there, and I could find myself there too, just a half hour perch, when my days of pubs and beers had morphed into the land mixed with children and lemonade. The beer certainly did make the lemonade taste better. Cheers to The Espy!

The patio: sea breeze and views of the waves. ‘1/4hr parking!’

(c) Anna Sublet 2018

postscript: Today, the sun shone, and I drank gin: Four Pillars Sticky Carpet, specially made for The Espy, with a traditional Four Pillars label on the front, and Fred Negro graphics wrapped inside the bottle. A blend of brand new vision, purpose-built, wrapped around heart and soul of the old hotel’s memories.

Curious reader and undercover scribbler. Published in The Guardian, The Age, Australian Traveller, Footy Almanac, The New York Times.