Ponyfish Island – Melbourne’s Bar in the Middle of the Yarra – is Getting a Dramatic Makeover

Originally published on Broadsheet. 

Expect a seafood-focussed menu and cocktails that “kick like a mule”. A drive-through just for boats is also on the cards.

Running a bar in the middle of the Yarra is a tough gig.

“The simple things are taken for granted, like power supply, fresh water and transporting kegs,” says Andrew Mackinnon, who owns Ponyfish Island along with Grant Smillie and Jerome Borazio.

Since Ponyfish opened in 2010, wild weather has been problematic too, occasionally flooding the low-lying platform the bar resides on, sending customers and staff fleeing to the safety of the footbridge above.

“We also used to not be able to plug in four appliances without not only cutting our own circuit breakers, but shutting down the lights along Southbank,” says Mackinnon.

So, after a decade, the team is thrilled to be overhauling the space.

“Ponyfish was an unexpected hit,” says Smillie. “When we were selling out of beer in the first week, we knew we were onto something good. But we’ve wanted to make Ponyfish a world-class destination for a while.”

The bar is retiring its semi-nautical vibe, recycled timber furniture and planter boxes. Instead, Ponyfish 2.0 will take a more sophisticated form, with a softer colour palette and a “Palm Springs-inspired look”, according to Smillie. There’ll also be more space, with room for 150 people – a step up from 110 at the Ponyfish of old.

The team engaged design firm Studio -Gram (behind the look of Adelaide’s AfricolaShoboshoOsteria OggiLeigh Street Wine room and Joybird) to bring its vision to life.

“Because of how exposed Ponyfish is to salty air, sunshine and foot traffic, we needed to ensure we had hearty colours and materials that age beautifully, as opposed to wearing quickly,” says Mackinnon.

Terrazzo-topped tables and comfy loungers will be dotted about the space, with custom Sunbrella sunshades from Tait providing shelter. Textured stucco walls will be painted beige, burnt orange and mint, with little pops of sky blue. Large, spherical lamps will illuminate the site at night, and new railing will line the perimeter.

The bar itself will remain the centrepiece, redefined by dramatic curved arches overhead and fresh white tiling. There’ll also be more space for staff to prep food, and the City of Melbourne has assisted in getting more power to the site.

“We couldn’t execute the culinary outcome we wanted to [before] due to such a small kitchen space,” says Smillie. “We’ll be able to do much more. We’ll have integrated storerooms, increased refrigeration and larger surface areas in the kitchen, allowing us to have more serious conversations with chefs.”

No chef has been named as yet, but the menu will be big on seafood. A few dishes on the cards include bruschetta topped with raw tuna, radish and chilli; prawn rolls with Marie Rose sauce; hot smoked kingfish with celeriac remoulade; and Ortiz anchovies on sourdough with butter and pickled shallots.

There’ll still be a decent collection of rum (including some “off the beaten track” bottles) and weighty, punchy cocktails. One might riff on a mezcal number at Smilie’s LA restaurant EP & LP. “I’d love to give that a spin back Down Under,” he says. “It kicks like a mule and has a bit of residual sweetness from passionfruit and damiana [a minty, spicy herb native to Mexico].”

The team is also toying with the idea of launching a fairly unique drive-through service, providing catering from different Melbourne chefs to boats on the Yarra.

And as for the flooding?

“Many things we are in control of, but the rising tide is not one,” Smilie says, laughing adding that wherever possible, the team has treated the outside enclosure “as close to a boat as possible”.

“Anything up to a 30-centimetre breach we should be okay. Failing that, we’re cleaning up again.”

Ponyfish Island is due for completion by November 2020.


Image: courtesy of Studio Gram.

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