James Street. It’s a murderers’ row of Brisbane dining.
Bianca, Essa, Same Same, Gerard’s Bistro, SK Steak & Oyster and Hellenika all call the precinct home. Cast the net a little wider and you capture Mosconi, Happy Boy, Snack Man and Kid Curry. They cover a variety of pricepoints but these are some of the city’s most exceptional restaurants – and you could walk past most of them in less than two minutes.
So, you wonder: how does Kiwi menswear brand Rodd & Gunn’s Lodge Bar & Dining fit into this heady mix?
On paper, it makes sense. James Street is where retail meets food and beverage. The Lodge brings it all under one roof, the restaurant’s heritage-listed Lawless Grocery Store building connected to a new Rodd & Gunn boutique on the James Street side of the premises. And as The Lodge Bar Group executive general manager of hospitality Josh Beagley tells it, if nothing else, this is a simple case of supply meeting demand.
“There’s a lot of great venues along this strip,” Beagley says. “But a lot of demand as well, and we want to make sure we’re catering some supply so when people go out to experience James Street, they always have a place to come by. We have this venue of scale that offers a number of different experiences.”
The Lodge is made up of a series of interconnected rooms, the layout of which can initially be a little disorientating. Beyond an enormous swinging glass door on James Street there’s a bar and an initial dining room, and then a second windowed dining area on the Robertson Street side. Walk around a corner and climb an enormous staircase and you’ll find the bathrooms, a second larger bar, a lounge area, a verandah and a fetching private dining room.
Throughout, the venue feels spacious, almost oversized. Rodd & Gunn as a brand is relatively restrained and outdoors-focused, and the fit-out plays it similarly straight with reams of pale American oak on the floors and ceilings, brass highlights, table linen and flagstone walls. It’s different to something like Bianca or Same Same, where the precision of the design runs down to the tiniest details.
The seasonal food menu is tightly focused, Kiwi executive chef Matt Lambert flexing his Michelin-star muscle (eight years running at The Musket Room in New York) via local produce and neat combinations of flavours and textures. Dishes such as a salad of warm and cooled peas with fried enoki and oyster mushrooms, and cold coral trout with puffed grains, avocado and herbs get out of the way of the produce, illustrating that confidence. Elsewhere, you might eat cuttlefish with chilli, rosemary and aioli; blue-crab fettuccine with sea-urchin butter, bottarga, lemon and chives; or a dry-aged, bone-in New York strip steak cooked on embers and finished with a seeded mustard jus.
Lambert says discovering local Queensland produce after spending a year locked down in New Zealand has been one of the joys of launching the James Street venue, which follows on from The Lodge’s Queenstown, Auckland and Melbourne outposts.
“I didn’t expect some of the things to be as good as they are, if I’m honest,” Lambert says. “I didn’t realise the seafood here is so incredible. We don’t have the bugs that you guys have. I didn’t realise that I’d had mostly bad prawns in my life until I came here and was like, ‘Wow, these prawns are incredible.’ Same thing with crab … Just these things that local people take for granted, and they’re amazing.”
Helping down the food is a 250-bottle wine list compiled by Cameron Douglas, New Zealand’s only master sommelier. The selection champions Kiwi drops without getting up in your grill about it, with Australian and European regions also well represented.
Upstairs, there’s the generously sized bar area, light-filled lounge and wraparound verandah with views across the heaving intersection of James, Robertson and Doggett streets. This just might be The Lodge’s secret weapon: it’s easy to imagine well-heeled James Street regulars piling into this more casual part of the venue, going large on buttered bug rolls and meat-pie croquettes, and slamming down classic and signature cocktails, while watching the hoi polloi below.
The Lodge Bar & Dining will almost certainly evolve over the next six months, but Beagley and Lambert seem comfortable with that. There’s an admirable fluidity to how the group approaches these venues, with each designed to appeal to its own city, and Beagley says that will continue.
“We will obviously embrace what the customer wants to experience and tailor the venue to that,” he says.
Plus, Lambert says the long Covid lockdown in New Zealand changed the reasons behind why he cooks.
“In the past I was very competitive about the way I approached food, but I’m not really looking at it the same, post-Covid … [I’m] now more hospitality focused,” Lambert says. “We’re here to please people, and that’s what makes it great. In the past, maybe I was a little bit more self-centered around everything I did: ‘That’s what I’m doing and you either like it or you don’t.’ But not so much anymore.
“I want to see a full dining room. That’s the high. In the past, my reward was a Michelin star and lists and all the rest of it. But I’d rather see a full dining room and everyone engaged and happy. That’s the reward.”
The Lodge Bar & Dining opens tomorrow May 19.
The Lodge Bar & Dining
49 James Street, Fortitude Valley