“I always try to create something that’s timeless and kooky but takes people out of their world and transports them to another,” says hospitality entrepreneur Tracey Lester, owner of The Gertrude Hotel. When she owned Yelza (now the Fitzroy Beer Garden) and the Builders Arms in the ’90s and early 2000s, Gertrude Street was pretty drab. These days, it’s a vibrant hub of cafes, restaurants, bars and boutiques, so to create a space that stands out takes some doing. But, as always, Lester has pulled it off.
From the street – the David Bowie lightning-bolt paintwork on the facade notwithstanding – you can still tell the building is a 19th-century pub, but those thoughts are gone once you’re inside. As with Lester’s eclectic CBD spot, The Carlton Club, the fit-out is wild. There are 1800 holographic glass domes of varying sizes attached to the walls, all hand-blown by Lester and glass artist Mark Douglass. Flocking covers fake indoor plants and some of the domes, while triangular glass chandeliers (also made by Lester) dangle over a movie-theatre carpet. A trained artist, Lester is much more interested in creating something visually gripping than just opening another watering hole. “My pubs are my artwork now,” Lester says. “Half of the reason why I’m doing it is to entertain myself – it’s my living artwork, it’s my latest exhibition.”
Don’t take the design for self-indulgence though – Lester is a long-time publican with a knack for balance, and The Gertrude Hotel is still a pub, whichever way you look at it. “It’s trying to bridge between the high-end food at Marion and what I think The Napier does so well, which is a great Fitzroy pub,” Lester says. Chef Serradan Sharp (The Press Club, Maze) is running the kitchen, which faithfully blends those classic counter meals with some of his fine-dining influences.
“It’s trying to find that balance,” says Sharp. “It’s almost like a wine-bar feel with the small sharing plates, but also being able to sit down and have a steak if you like.” Sharp’s most inventive dishes are those small plates. Aged Comté from Bill’s Farm is cooked with tapioca pearls and dusted with vegan parmesan salt, while Skull Island prawns are seared on the binchotan (white charcoal) grill and served with ‘nduja butter. Sharp also offers two larger options for sharing: a full chicken or a Southeast Asian-influenced whole flounder.
“Flounder is the perfect sharing fish, I think,” Sharp says. “That’s cooked on the barbeque and then we make a nuoc mam sauce, a Vietnamese sauce of chilli, fish sauce, lime juice and brown sugar.” Mains include pine-mushroom rigatoni, and classics like schnitzel, porterhouse steak and cheeseburgers.
Lester has lived in the Gertrude Street area for 32 years, so she understands how things have changed. Though The Gertrude Hotel is geared towards danceable DJs and cocktails, it’s equally set up for family dinners with kids or a quiet weeknight pint. However you want to approach it, Lester knows her flair will get through. “Try and be unhappy in here, Evan!” she says, half yelling. And it’s a challenge she knows any of us would gladly lose.
The Gertrude Hotel
148 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy
0404 827 418
Wed to Thu 4pm–11pm
Fri to Sat 4pm–1am