“I always try to create something that is timeless and wacky, but takes people out of their world and into 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 dull. Today it’s a bustling hub of cafes, restaurants, bars and boutiques, so creating a space that stands out takes some action. But as always, Lester made it happen.
From the street – despite the lightning bolt paint on David Bowie’s facade – 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 decor is wild. There are 1800 holographic glass domes of various sizes attached to the walls, all hand blown by Lester and glass artist Mark Douglass. Mass covers fake houseplants and some domes, while triangular glass chandeliers (also made by Lester) dangle above a cinema carpet. Lester is a trained artist and is much more interested in creating something visually compelling than just opening another watering hole. “My pubs are now my works of art,” Lester says. “Half the reason I do it is to entertain myself – it’s my living work of art, it’s my latest exhibition.”
Don’t take the design for self-indulgence, though – Lester is an old tax collector with a knack for poise, and The Gertrude Hotel is still a pub no matter how you look at it. “It tries to bridge the gap between the high-end food at Marion and what I think The Napier does so well, which is a great Fitzroy pub,” says Lester. Chef Serradan Sharp (The Press Club, Maze) runs the kitchen, which faithfully combines these classic countertop meals with some of his refined influences.
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“It’s trying to find that balance,” Sharp says. “It’s almost like a wine bar feel with the small plates to share, as well as sit down and eat a steak if you want.” Sharp’s most inventive dishes are those little plates. Bill’s Farm’s Aged Comté is cooked with tapioca pearls and sprinkled with vegan Parmesan salt, while Skull Island shrimp 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 whole bone with Southeast Asian influences.
“Bone is the perfect fish to share, I think,” Sharp says. “That is cooked on the barbecue and then we make a nuoc mam sauce, a Vietnamese sauce of chili, fish sauce, lime juice and brown sugar.” Mains include rigatoni with pine mushrooms and classics like schnitzel, porterhouse steak and cheeseburgers.
Lester has lived in the Gertrude Street neighborhood for 32 years, so she understands how things have changed. While The Gertrude Hotel is geared towards danceable DJs and cocktails, it’s also great for family dinners with kids or a quiet pint during the week. However you want to approach it, Lester knows her flair will come through. “Try to be unhappy here, Evan!” she says half screaming. And it’s a challenge that she knows each of us would love to lose.
The Gertrude Hotel
148 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy
0404 827 418
Wed to Thu 4:00 pm–11:00 pm
Fri to Sat 4:00 pm – 1:00 am
Sun 1:00 PM–10:00 PM