While a certain southside cinema may be on the bench right now, The Astor, on the corner of Carlton’s iconic Lygon Street and Elgin, has reopened after a short gap following the departure of tennant, legendary Carlton premiership player Peter “Percy” Jones.
Restaurateur Darran Smith snapped up the memorabilia-laden footy pub after spells at Sydney’s Icebergs Dining Room, Merivale’s Hemmesphere Bar and the Hilton’s Glass Brasserie. It's reopened as a smart bar with dark wood, brass and mirror finishes, minus the TVs, focusing on shared plates. The Astor also encompasses a new dining room dubbed The Roving Marrow.
“Carlton has really changed over the last year,” Smith says. “You’ve had all these great operators coming in like Heartattack and Vine and Milk The Cow, and obviously there’s The Town Mouse. A lot of people said, ‘whatever you do, don’t change it,’ but there was pretty much me and one other person standing in the bar at that exact moment. Pubs are changing.”
The Astor bar boasts ten taps, largely sticking with CUB in a nod to the pub’s long lineage, but with a couple of rotating ones given over to craft beers. French expat and Smith’s Iceberg’s partner Rudolph Bertin is handling the wine list, with 60 varietals and 20 by the glass. Another old mate Mike Enright, owner of Sydney’s The Barber Shop, has devised the cocktail list.
The bar food offering at The Astor takes the shape of shared plates, oysters and a trio of hot dogs. “Hot dogs aren’t really being done in Carlton at the moment,” Smith says. “There’s a lot of hamburgers and pasta. They’re my staple naughty food.”
Head chef Hayden McMillan made his mark with Auckland’s Tribeca restaurant and was introduced to Smith by Belle’s Hot Chicken and Bar Clarine guru Morgan McGlone. “We wanted to design The Roving Marrow restaurant around the kitchen, and we came up with the idea of doing trolley service,” Smith says. “It’s easy and fun, and you can eat with your eyes. They’ve been designed by our architect Thomas Jacobsen. They’re pretty cool, cruising around.”
If that seems a little 80s retro fine dining, Smith has pedigree. He started out in the business at 18-years-old with a dinner jacket and bow tie on, doing table service flambé and Caesar salads, decanting the Grange. “Twenty years later I’m still here, and I still love it,” Smith adds. “Sometimes you have to roll the dice a little and change it up, because hospo can get a little Groundhog Day. You have to live on the edge a little bit. I think it’s a no brainer.”
Those trolleys give the dining room its name too, with “Roving” referring to adventuresome travel and “Marrow” the noun meaning “core,” so heart, spirit and soul, rather than bone or vegetable. Diners will be served a cup of house-made green tea on arrival at The Roving Marrow, care of John Thomspon’s Heirs & Graces.
There are plans afoot to put in another bar upstairs at The Astor, or boutique hotel rooms, with the ultimate goal being a rooftop terrace down the line. “I like to dream,” says Smith. “It will happen, but one step at a time.”
The Astor | 418 Lygon Street in Carlton
Image credit: The Roving Marrow