The arrival of Prince William and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge in Australia next month already has the monarchists and the glamorists frothing at the mouth, but Melburnians have another reason to be excited this April as the Prince of Wales Hotel celebrates its inaugural Month of the Prince.
St Kilda's 94-year-old icon, rebuilt 74 years ago, comprises the down-to-earth Prince Public Bar, with its Monday night drag shows, pub bands and footy on the telly, and the Prince Bandroom hosting gigs from local and international talent. At the other end of the scale there's one of Melbourne's best dining experiences in fancy pants Circa and the swish The Prince hotel attached. Sitting somewhere between the pair, Acland Street Cantina serves up yummy street food.
With all of this going on under one roof, the team thought it was well worth celebrating the combined venues' contribution to St Kilda's still thriving scene. Stephen Burke, executive chef of the Melbourne Pub Group who took over the joint after the Van Haandels left, says the Month of the Prince program was created to celebrate the rich history of the venue and the talent that has passed through its various offerings.
"It's a bit of St Kilda history," Burke says. "The Prince is such a landmark and as St Kilda has gentrified through the years, the Prince is still standing strong as a place the local community can enjoy, as well as attracting people from all over Melbourne."
Major events on the calendar during Month of the Prince include a five-course degustation meal conjured up by Circa's head chef, Ashly Hicks, alongside the visiting Brent Savage, co-owner of Sydney's The Bentleigh bar and restaurant, dubbed Savages and Hicks. Savage brings his business partner and sommelier, Nick Hildebrandt, along for the ride, matching wines to each course.
"I'm really looking forward to that one," Burke says. "Brent's an old friend of mine and it will be a fun, modern dinner. He's very well known for his food philosophy which is very similar to Ashly."
Other highlights include the amusingly titled Street Feud, on The Prince Deck, which sees street food proponents including Hannoi Hannah, Saigon Sally, Acland Street Cantina and Charlie Dumpling offering up their finest finger food in a (mostly friendly) battle for supremacy. "It's a very friendly rivalry," Burke says. "There will be DJs and a real fun party atmosphere."
Perhaps the most exciting event on the Month of the Prince calendar is the Circa Through The Ages dinner, which brings back a host of Circa's former head chefs, including Matt Wilkinson, Philippa Sibley, David Moyle, Jake Nicolson, Ashly Hicks and Stephen Burke, alongside sommeliers Sally Humble, Chris Crawford, Matt Brooke and Sarah Ward.
Wilkinson joined Circa in 2005 as Andrew McConnell's sous chef in the year the restaurant climbed from two hats to three, and worked as co-head chef with Moyle when McConnell moved on, before taking the reigns himself and changing the focus to garden-to-kitchen dining. He was there for five years, which is pretty good going in hospitality terms.
"Andrew has been a huge mentor in my life, as he has with very many people," Wilkinson says. "He took my blinkers off to what the whole wide world of food could be, because he has such an immense repertoire. The thing I learnt most from Andrew was surround yourself with the best people and you'll cook some of the best food and it will make your life easier."
Wilkinson now co-owns East Brunswick's Pope Joan with business partner, Ben Forster, but he's looking forward to returning to Circa's kitchen and catching up with old friends. "A lot of the guys have gone on to do very amazing things," he says. "I love Moyley dearly – he's one of the best chefs in Australia. I'm looking forward to the banter with him, Jakey and Pip, and me just taking the piss out of Stevie."
The kitchen has been renovated since Wilkinson left, so he's nervous about finding his way around and cooking again. "I'm a bit rusty – it's been a while since I've been on the pans. I'll just be trying to figure out what I'm doing."
Wilkinson also wonders if he left his mark on Circa in other ways. "For a while I was quite turbulent. I might have been a little bit of a screamer now and then, so there might be a few dints in some of the fridges. My old staff will laugh about certain times with me losing it."
If you don't have the budget for this celebrity five-course degustation dinner at $165 per head with matched wines, Circa will also be offering a two course lunch plus a glass of wine for only $25, Monday to Friday, for the whole month of April. At the other end of the scale, the Prince Bandroom will host the likes of The Fratellis, Devendra Banhart and Yacht Club DJs, while the Public Bar's free live gigs include Drunk Mums, The Mighty Boys, Gossamer Pride, Harvey Cartel and The Tarantinos.
Month of the Prince | Runs for the month of April 2014
For more information, go to www.monthoftheprince.com.au