Fonda co-owners Tim McDonald and Dave Youl are fond of a challenge. They've quietly opened their third outpost in the cavernous spot next to Cumulus Inc. on Flinders Lane, a spot that has seen both Mercy Bar and Virginia Plain throw in the towel in rapid succession.
Walking into their impressive Fonda Flinders Lane fit out – designed by regular collaborators, Techne Architects – on a Monday afternoon to see it fairly thriving, it seems they just might be the guys to make the vast warehouse-like space work. A new raised area at the front, with huge inward-opening windows, is crammed with multi-coloured booth seats, while a riot of black power line-like cables criss cross backwards through the venue, dangling little light bulbs.
Working the concept of a Fonda as a Mexican family home turned unofficial restaurant, the guys call this front area the courtyard, with the central open kitchen holding court. The bar is a splash of turquoise tiles, with a white and yellow tile backdrop and a hanging timber and steel frame. It's a hive of activity.
"There's a lot of energy coming out of that kitchen," McDonald says. "We've taken it from where it used to be at the back and made it the heart and soul of the space. There's light, smell and sound and the restaurant really feeds off that, even when it's pretty quiet."
Long wooden bench seats in front of pale, exposed brick walls accommodate large tables, with ceramic flower-pot like lamps overhead, then there are loads of smaller circular tables with grey bucket seats, before more booths take over to the rear. Fonda's back wall is a riot of colour with a bright yellow storage cage and yellow and blue neon strips running round the edges. The side windows have been opened up, bringing a flood of natural light back indoors, imbuing the eatery with a sense of life that was previously missing.
It's still impressive, compared to the dinky Richmond original, but the space seems to be under control this time. Not that the guys are sizeist. "We're all about finding nice buildings big enough to meet the demand; we're not just going big for the sake of it," McDonald says. "300 people are rocking up on a Friday night wanting to eat. The population of the city is phenomenal and that's only going to grow."
Go to some of the CBD's nearby hot dining spots and you might just find yourself waiting two hours-plus for a table, but McDonald says that's madness. "We wanted to take the fuss out of it. We're doing Mexican street food, tacos and burritos, it doesn't feel right for people to have to wait terribly long for it. We wanted the seating here to meet demand. That's why it's fun and colourful, we didn't want to be an exclusive, serious establishment."
While there will occasionally be queues at the weekend, Fonda Flinders Lane seats 185 and can usually accommodate crowds quickly; unlike the Richmond and Windsor joints, there are even a couple of bookable tables for around 8 to 22 folks, meaning you can lock in birthdays and the like with ease.
There are plans to expand the menu offering at some stage too, perhaps with tostadas and straight-up meat dishes. "There's always a balance between keeping it simple and streamlined, so we can do what we do and do it well, but we're always wanting to improve and change," McDonald says. "We'd have rocks in our head if we thought we could have the same offering in ten years and still be busy."
McDonald doesn't buy into the idea that Melbourne's hunger for Mexican food is reaching its limit. "People talk about the Mexican craze but I don't think it's gone off much at all," McDonald says. "If you look at how many Italian restaurants there are in Melbourne, I'd say there'd be circa 1,100. There are probably ten good Mexican restaurants. It's not a fad, as such; it's healthy, tasty and nutritious."
So where to next? Northside? "We don't have a specific plan," he says. "We're looking interstate before we saturate, so instead of having 15 in Melbourne, we'll look at places like Perth. For us it's all about finding the right building. We like beautiful old buildings with character. When the right building comes up in the right location, we'll do it. If you start to see us set up alongside a highway or at the bottom of residential developments, then I'd think we were getting a little bit ahead of ourselves and a bit greedy."
Image Credits: Tash Sorensen, The Urban List.