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The Espy's new owners breathe new life into an iconic Melbourne music venue

When Andy Mullins, one of the owners of hospitality group Sand Hill Road, signed on the dotted line to buy The Espy, he says the previous owners warned him: “As much as you bought this, you boys, you’ll never own it.”

Anyone who grew up or lives south of the river, especially in St Kilda or its surrounds, feels like they have some ownership of The Espy, so making everyone happy was never going to happen. 

“There’s just so much love and angst and nervousness,” laughs Mullins. “Trying to keep everyone happy at the same time, it’s fucking impossible.” That said, the good news is that the Sand Hill Road team have given it a fine crack. 

The renewed public bar still has a super casual beer and jeans vibe, meanwhile the standing bar in the middle of the space has been decorated with a stash of musical artefacts salvaged from a room behind a locked door that the new owners stumbled upon after they took over. 

“We eventually got it open and there were about two-and-a-half thousand band posters and also boxes of demo tapes, video tapes, CDs for bands,” Mullins explains. “That legacy was handed back to us. We’ll just keep layering it up over time.”

Elsewhere is the basement stage which holds around 180 people. There are currently around three to four days a week of music scheduled, but this is set to grow to seven days a week. Mullins explains that the Espy’s live music offering will boast everything from punk, blues, roots, rap, metal and a healthy dose of rock, while he also asserts that it will remain completely free.

The main bar (in the space that used to be the main stage) offers a light-filled terrace dining area. This is the setting for the second stage, which has been a controversial addition because, quite frankly, it’s not much of a replacement for the iconic Espy main stage. But Mullins says it serves a totally different purpose, and expects it to be a great platform for up-and-comers.

“That’s where you go ‘oh, okay, so there’s this cool three-piece.’ They’re playing their own indie, you can walk past – [it’s] almost like busking,” he says.

Walk down past the main bar and you’ll land in the studio, which is a small area with booths on one side and a pretty shmick looking podcast studio – for recording live performances and one-on-ones with bands – on the other. Later, this will become a space that community podcasters will be able to use too.

Further along is The Espy Kitchen, a huge dining area that sits in the old loading bay and has parmas, burgers and pizzas on the menu. “This is food to eat in your hands. And we’re doing a barrel-aging cocktail program,” says Mullins, adding that there’s barrel-aging wine and beer available too. On the second floor is Cantonese restaurant Mya Tiger, while the top floor features a more upmarket cocktail bar named The Ghost Of Alfred Felton. 

It’s going to be interesting to see how the Espy toes the line between the upmarket cocktail and whiskey-loving clientele upstairs, and the beer-swilling live music fans in the basement and the Gershwin stage, but Mullins would like to think it just means there’s something for everyone.

“If you want to see great bands in Melbourne, in St Kilda, this is a place you can come to. If you want to have great food in Melbourne, in a suit, you’ve got options. So it’ll work itself out,” he says. 

The iconic Gershwin room heads the music front, which is set to see a slew of fantastic artists in the near future, including Tumbleweed, C.W. Stoneking and Kingswood on New Year’s Eve. Some unexpected names also pop up on the gig guide, including Mental As Anything and Daryl Braithwaite. According to Mullins, everything old is new again. As for who he’d like to see down the track, one name comes to mind. 

“I think a really emotional night would be seeing Paul Kelly on that stage on his promenade singing about his Esplanade. I think that’s a real moment. I get funny just thinking about it.”

The Espy is located at 11 The Esplanade, St Kilda. Find more details on their new offerings via their website, hotelesplanade.com.au.