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Upon reading a gig guide one morning, I snapped into high alert as I realized that my favourite band in the world would be crossing the Pacific to play a couple of gigs – at one of the most decrepit, gracious and wonderful venues in Australia. Which just happened to be a mere 500 metre walk from one of the coolest boutique hotels in Melbourne. Which by coincidence was right next to a restaurant I’ve wanted to try for aeons.  And so it was that I found myself on a 24 hour mini-break in Melbourne on a blustery Tuesday, playing truant in the best possible way.

No one does the crumbling pub quite like Melbourne. Like hoary old chestnuts, these prickly facades hide shining and glossy interiors. The George on Ftizroy Street in St Kilda is perhaps the finest case in point, looking on the outside like you need a hard hat and a brave insurer to enter, but housing the slick and eclectic Melbourne Wine Room inside. Just down the road, towards the bay is the Prince of Wales Hotel, where crusty locals with Harley Davidson thighs nurse lager in front of its caramel deco exterior.  To the uninitiated, it looks like just another pub. But look carefully. To the left a huge blackboard advertises some of the best in the indie music scene in kinder-bright chalk. That’s the Prince Band Room. Around the corner, a discreet window display of Perrier-Jouet vintages fronts the Prince Wine Store. Next door to that, a tiny red-lit sign reads “Mink”.  Squint, or you’ll miss it. This is the Prince’s bijoux basement boudoir bar and home of many a secret tryst. A sliding glass door leads to a spare and dark lobby populated by equally dark and attractive reception staff, its severity relieved by a gorgeously fresh and blowsy flower display. To the left is a sunlit atrium housing Circa, the Prince’s revered restaurant, presently helmed by Jake Nicolson after stints at El Bulli and the Ledbury, now less formal but no less exquisite. Finally, up a short flight of stairs, water cascades down a glass screen, blurring the cherry blossom branches in the entry to the Aurora Spa. Yes, this is more than a front bar.

It is not however, a full service hotel. You are checked in, given a key, and left to your own devices. The service is there if you ask for it, but there are no butlers, bellboys or concierges on call here. In a way, it’s nice to be treated like a grown up, although the staff, when they appear, could add a little personality to their professionalism.

The overall feel is dark and sexy, with surprise accents such as hot pink hand painted room numbers. The rooms themselves are simple and small, with chocolate carpet, white linen, wicker pendant lamps and marble bath sinks. Details are luxe – Bose wave stereos, imported beers in the minibar, aloe and rose spa products from Aurora, and most precious of all – damn fine room lighting. The rooms are starting to show signs of wear and tear however, and the Fitzroy Street rooms, whilst they offer a birdseye view on to the compelling parade below, also lack any soundproofing at all.  In the middle of the night you could be forgiven for thinking there was an ambulance, domestic argument or group of inebriated youths in your bedroom.  I imagine from time to time there are. It’s that kind of place.

In all, perfect for its purpose. My little escape started right next door at Lau’s Family Kitchen with an early dinner of crystalline scallop dumplings and meltingly tender pork braised in sharp-sweet black vinegar. It met all my expectations for Cantonese home cooking and lined the stomach very agreeably. Then followed a sublime evening watching four boys from Brooklyn rock out in the most elegant way from my lofty perch at the Palais. Finally, a frosty walk back to the Prince, where I snuggled down beneath the wool coverlet, and listened to the sounds of the city gradually fade with sleep.