The Station Precinct

September 15, 2011

Reinvigorating South Yarra’s oldest industrial sector, HASSELL begins to define a new laneway offering a fresh foodie alternative to Melbourne’s typical haunts.

Nestled in one of Melbourne’s most recent urban developments, an inviting little laneway calls for inspection. It’s a small strip just off the South Yarra train tracks that has been in the works for approximately eight years now and has inspired the likes of Michael Yates and other property developers, including Grocon, David Deague and the APN Property Group, to aim high – quite literally in some cases – to establish a new stomping ground for South Yarra urbanites. This burgeoning community of residential and corporate development is an area of South Yarra that has long been ignored, according to Yates; however, things have changed around here. What this South Yarra precinct now has is a great product of his efforts and those of his design team – in particular, HASSELL.

Perhaps even more interesting, to the foodie in all of us, is that this area has provoked the interest and further investment of some youthful and talented hospitality operators – all of them staples of the Melbourne culinary circuit. We could coin this new pocket of delights for the palate ‘The Station Precinct’, not only for its proximity to the South Yarra Railway Station, but also for the many cranes that have long been stationed here – building upwards to what is now the upside of Toorak Road.

Scheduled to meet Scott Walker, the principal architect and designer in this case for HASSELL in Melbourne, I arrive and exit South Yarra Station, and hang a quick left onto Yarra Street. The old brick walls, having been here for at least a century, tell a somewhat nostalgic story of an old factory precinct that once used to generate hectic industrial bustle.

Within a hundred metres, I’m able to see what this work-in-progress is all about. Looking at the facade of the newest Outpost Café extension, now known as the Outpost Dining Room, Walker is within sight, standing in front of not one, but three hospitality projects on which he’s had considerable focus for the last year.

‘What you have here is the Outpost Dining Room, Deba Sushi Bar and Ben Cooper’s Mopho Noodle Bar,’ he says modestly. An outside eating area catches my attention, as it is well sheltered, protected from the wind by what looks to be a massive flotation device. It isn’t, in fact, but the white, futuristic igloo-like shelter certainly interrupts (in a good way) the corporate-yet-charming new laneway where we find ourselves standing. He looks around, as if fairly pleased to see so many people walking and creating the sort of social traffic they’ve long been waiting for here.

‘There’s still a lot of work going on,’ he says. ‘But it’s actually an interesting little precinct because of these eateries. You have Davis Yu, owner of The Millswyn and George Calombaris setting up shop down the way.’ He says this as he points towards Chapel Street, where just a few days earlier I was able to catch up with Bates Smart’s Jeffery Copolov to discuss The Capitol project (with its very similar outlook), one of the biggest buildings to break ground in this new precinct.

Turning toward the open corner of the little laneway, Walker and I gravitate toward Deba Sushi Bar – the first shopfront noticeable from the laneway’s Yarra Street access point. Small and compact, the space is filled with charming and simple treatments of timber and tile work, which play well with each other. It’s a distinct and modern Japanese aesthetic, clearly achieved, using merely these two elements. With the use of the raw wood beams, clean yet textured surfaces (of small and large white tiles in clever configuration) and one amazing mosaic of a colourful, splashing carp, Walker has already scored big points with Deba. Within a minute, however, it becomes crowded and clearly evident that Deba was always meant to be an in-and-out eatery. A quick take inside, and we’re outside again.

Next, he walks me through Ben Cooper’s new Mopho Noodle Bar, the latest culinary project by hospitality entrepeneur Salvatore Malatesta (of St Ali fame). Confronted on entrance by the luscious aroma of Cooper’s kitchen, it’s almost as if we’ve been transported from Osaka to Bangkok’s most stylish little noodle bar. The whole thing makes me a bit a hungry, but we hold out and continue our site visit. It’s a busy lunch hour and Walker notes, ‘Malatesta is just really good at setting up places and getting the buzz right – placing good operators, and such, to get everything going properly.’

As I look around and take in the warmth of Walker’s second design project within this new South Yarra complex, it becomes clear that all of the specified elements of the design perfectly complement the kitchen’s comforting quality. Darker tones have been chosen and detailed with a lovely plywood screen, stained black and laser cut to create an ornate and repeating pattern. A robust palette of concrete and untreated wood ensures the whole space echoes a casual mood for the culinary experience on offer. It’s a cosy noodle bar, a place that makes you want to stay to devour Cooper’s Asian delights.

As we walk to the other end, an open doorway is exposed to the main lobby of Punthill Hotel (and the South Yarra Grand apartments) that also occupy the building above. It makes good sense and adds another inviting quality to the restaurant. I take in the smell once more and think to myself, who wouldn’t want Cooper’s kitchen at their doorstep?

We soon turn back, exiting as we entered, and make our way over to the Outpost Dining Room, the ‘centrepiece’ design. I ask Walker how they agreed on what looks to be such an old-fashioned, albeit themed, look for the outside seating area, a design choice that seems visually effective, but slightly incongruous within the context of the laneway.

‘The white facade there is actually an old second-hand shopfront that we found while touring up north in Victoria, noticing all these old shops,’ says Walker. ‘We found someone that was willing to sell their shopfront off, and we just broke it down, then rebuilt it again… we were trying to add another layer to the laneway, because otherwise, if it’s all brand new, it starts to look a bit commercial and corporate, you know?’

I couldn’t agree more. And, actually, it even makes me more curious as to what else exists further down the strip. As we keep walking, we encounter an unexpected but pleasant surprise. The biggest stakeholder himself, Yates, appears in the distance and walks up to us to say hello. Walker introduces me, and explains that (inside) magazine is covering the three hospitality projects they’ve recently polished off. ‘There’s been a lot of discussion lately, and it’s all coming together as they say,’ Yates exclaims. ‘On the corner there you have Davis Yu, who’s recently done The Millswyn on Domain Road. He’s spending about $800,000 and doing something new, similar to Daylesford Organic in London [in Notting Hill], which is a six-star organic produce market and delicatessen. So that’ll be fabulous. Then you have George Calombaris, who’s just over the road – he opens in September with nearly a 7-million dollar investment.’

That’s a confidence boost to say the least, but Yates has been at this for years – and he well knows what he’s getting into. Yates planted a massive stake in the Station Precinct seven years ago, but now that all the new and well-established players of the culinary circuit have arrived, things have finally begun to take shape (both culturally and economically, in this case), in the way that Yates perhaps once imagined.

‘You know this area has always suffered from an identity crisis,’ he says. ‘No one really knew where it was, which is extraordinary, because it was a big 1950s industrial/factory area. Hence, we got little opposition to planning, and the Council is very pleased that we’ve put in this east-to-west connection [the narrow laneway where we're currently standing]. It essentially goes from the railway line through to Chapel Street. Melbourne loves food areas, such as Degraves Street and Flinders Lane, so now this too will soon become a real foodies’ belt,’ he adds.

For the more demanding gastronomers and café goers of Melbourne, this alone may be enough to get excited about, but the reality is that there’s much more work to be done here – and the laneway isn’t anywhere near what it aims to be, in the sense of cultural development.

Walker and I stroll back up the laneway, as I’m still curious to see what the social dynamic is like at this hour (lunchtime) in the new Outpost Dining Room. We’re forced to walk past Dutton Sporting Cars dealership, and I almost begin to drool at the sight of a 1965 Aston Martin DB5. I need coffee, quickly – and about a million bucks to go with it.

We finally enter the Outpost Dining Room, passing by the existing café itself, and find, as to be expected perhaps, this is the Outpost concept basically extended to a slightly more formal dining scenario. The use of materials and colours from the café’s older portion are accentuated, but in a fitout that creates a much quieter and more intimate feel. The specified tables and chairs are a choice match, both of them bespoke designs, with the tables mixing a stone core at their centre with a surrounding wood grain top that has been finished on fastening edges with copper detailing. The chairs are simply a new rendition of a classic French industrial theme – a look that could now be considered a signature aesthetic for the St Ali Group and other Melbourne cafés.

The feeling seems familiar, but there’s just one little problem here. The people have yet to line up or create that typical bustle for which Melbourne hospitality, and certainly St Ali, is well known. While the other two projects from earlier in the visit display a much more simplified, and perhaps humble, quality in their design intent, the logical and ‘hospitable’ purpose of each one is quite clear and well defined. In slight contrast here, this ‘dining room’ – gorgeous as it may be (thanks to Walker and his HASSELL team) – well, it needs something else. What it needs is actually way out of Walker’s control… It needs a vibrant clientele to actually appreciate it.

  • Andy Leigh September 22nd, 2011 11:27 am

    Nice to see an article that is willing to delve into the often socially deleterious consequences of high-design. South Yarra’s Forrest Hill Precinct and Station Precinct’s will never achieve the cosmopolitan bustle and grit that they seek to emulate because the social dynamic is…well…not dynamic…a corporate ‘mix’ of pinstripe or charcoal suited financial sector workers, lawyers and architects unfortunately dont generate the ‘desirable’ mix. What needs to happen, is the provision of business incubators for start up businesses…some genuinely affordable student housing, and some key worker / affordable housing. As rightly alluded to in this article, architecture alone cannot generate a social condition…the south needs to look to the north and learn some lessons. Would love to see the south’s version of RAW house or the Commons…

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