People say that when you buy a house you should know it’s yours the moment you walk through the doors. It should have a feeling, a warmth and a comfort that makes you want to curl up on the couch with a good book and a pot of peppermint tea. I have that same view about restaurants. Sometimes it’s nice to go somewhere frenetic and fun, but there are days when you just want to find a spot you can settle into. That’s how I felt walking into Punch Lane. The warmth, lighting and music instantly had me wanting to sink into one of the comfy leather chairs, order a glass of red and settle in for the night.
It’s coming up to twenty years since Punch Lane first opened its doors – and when it comes to Melbourne, that’s quite an achievement. Owner/manager Martin Pirc has been there at every step, ignoring the food trends that come and go and remaining focused on providing quality food, drink and service in a building that evokes feelings of decades past. I recently caught up with Pirc to talk Melbourne food, laneway dining and the recent renovation of the restaurant, which is more of a refresh than a complete new look.
For those who haven’t been before can you describe Punch Lane?
Punch Lane is an inner city wine bar and restaurant. It has been operating for almost 20 years and was born from a time where there weren’t many options for blending eating and drinking in a quality, yet casual setting.
Set in a building that is well over one hundred years old, Punch Lane has the feel of a bygone era but with a contemporary attitude and a contemporary flavour.
Can you tell us a bit about the history of the building?
It was originally a Melbourne police station, built around the time when Ned Kelly was being hunted. The building across the road, Longrain, were the stables where they kept the station’s horses.
In it’s lifetime, it has also been a red light district, a holding pen and an ASIO building, so it really encompasses a lot of Melbourne history.
When was the restaurant established?
Punch Lane was established in 1995, and started life at the same time the Southern Cross Hotel was being demolished. I was lucky enough to pick up some of the club grill chairs from Southern Cross, which would have been present when the Beatles were staying in Melbourne at that time.
We had elements of Melbourne’s iconic history brought to life again in a new venue.
On your website you describe Punch Lane as a pioneer in laneway dining. Can you explain that a little bit to us?
It happened unknowingly at the time, or maybe it was just by chance or luck. Sometimes you just have to be in the right place at the right time and there is nothing metaphysical about it. I think in that period Melbourne was coming out of a bleakness, it was a city where everyone left. It was that classic Brack painting, Collins St, 5pm. Bleak faces leaving the city.
Being young, perhaps naïve and maybe even a little lucky, I settled upon the perfect set of circumstances with a corner block, an old red brick building of a bygone era and licensing laws that allowed you to be more flexible. I think a lot of this, and probably a lot of my career, has been intuitive. It just felt like the right combination of things for me.
There is all sorts of lanes now. In the QV building they are actually trying to create new lanes. Lanes have almost become synonymous with discovery and possibility. You know, “what am I going to find if I go up these stairs, down this corridor, what’s around that corner?”
Why do you think laneway dining works?
A laneway is more than a street. A street is obvious, you walk down a street and it’s all there in front of you. A laneway almost pre-empts the fact that I don’t know where I am actually going. I might be in Venice walking down a laneway and think “where did I go last time? I can’t find it again! Did I go left or did I go right?” – It’s the not knowing that is charming. You walk up some stairs, down some stairs, look through a hole. I think people want to have that kind of excitement because everything is so obvious these days. It’s a little bit of a challenge and a little bit of a mystery and that is what we all want to be seduced with.
There are so many restaurants in Melbourne coming and going. Why do you think Punch Lane has been so successful?
I’m tenacious. A bit like a dog with a bone. It’s what I like to do. For me, the excitement is in the whole delivery; the product, being a part of it and bringing other people along with you. Without giving myself too much of a pat on the back, I really am fussy about people and the people around me. The kick I get in life is the ability to put all those components together. Like a venue, the people that go in it, the aesthetics, the people that produce the food, the people that find the wine, the people that we’re connecting with, the producers – bringing all of that together under the one umbrella and sharing it with people.
What do you think people love about Punch Lane?
Whether you are a hipster, an older rural person that stays at the Windsor or a traveller on your own – the space itself, the actual atmosphere, is something people connect with. It’s not ostentatious. A really important element of creating this atmosphere is the people side of it. I have had people working with me for five, six, seven or even eight years who really are the heart and soul of the place, and people connect with that – a feeling of old friends and familiarity.
Like all food, it’s not that it ticks everybody’s box and nor should it. But the quality and the integrity of the food is there. It’s solid and has a backbone to it, and I think people are looking for that kind of experience.
Can you tell us about the recent renovation?
It’s been a process I have gone through for the last eight months or so. Again it was like most things, going back to that theme of intuition. It just felt like the right time. I think the last few years have been hard for a lot of people – suppliers, restaurants, families and the public in general. I think coming out of that period, it just felt like the right time, mentally and personally, to push through that glass ceiling.
I had some guys stop by in the first weekend I opened after the renovation. They said they wanted to come past and see the changes they had read about it, and were really worried that we had done something with Punch Lane and changed it. But they walked around with approval. They were nodding the whole time, looking around saying we had done a great job and it was like we hadn’t changed anything – it’s still Punch Lane.
What you realise is that, like anything, it becomes part of the general public. You end up becoming the custodian for something. You have given birth to something, but it belongs to everybody, like an old trust building or a centuries old tree – it is a part of everybody, you just have the key to it.
What do you see for Punch Lane into the future?
Hopefully more of the same. I would like to think Punch Lane could be in Melbourne for a long time to come and continue to be a part of it’s soul. A place where people, no matter where they come from, experience the kind of feeling you get when you are in older European or Asian cities, exploring an ancient temple or historic building. The feeling of going somewhere that has existed not just for a moment, but has had a life of it’s own. People connect with that feeling.
The journey will continue on. Punch Lane will become part of the fabric of Melbourne and the pride we have in our city, and the way we see it going forward. I like to think that Punch Lane has a small part to play in that evolution.