Ask industry insiders where they'd expect to find Australia's most stylish bar design and there's a high chance they'd go for Melbourne's fabled laneway scene. They'd be wrong though.
Blacksmith - bar, provedore and pizzeria located in the tiny town of Lake Mulwala (home to barely 2000 permanent residents) of NSW's Riverina region - has smashed the metaphorical food and beverage glass ceiling by winning Best Bar Design at the recent Eat Drink Design Awards.
Simplicity takes the prize
Pretty in pale pink, Blacksmith's arched façade picks up on the regional town's well-preserved mid-century architecture.
The jury of design industry and hospitality heavyweights – led by Artichoke editor Cassie Hansen and including architect Phillip Schemnitz and New York Times restaurant critic Besha Rodell – loved the simplicity of the winning bar design.
Praising the elegant restraint of the palette and materials, which complements its focus on serving all-day artisan pizzas, they said, "This restraint allows the few pops of whimsy to have a greater impact: vintage-style pink patio umbrellas… evoke 1970s Southern California."
"I think even we were surprised," Hansen acknowledges.
"It's beautiful. It still would have won if it was in Melbourne, but the fact that such a well-considered space happens to be in this regional town where it's bringing so much value to the local community ticks even more boxes."
When a risk pays off
Revealing that the jury were unanimous on this pick, Hansen says they were looking for interiors that took risks while maintaining a high level of authenticity and clarity. Noting that
Australia and New Zealand are renowned for delivering world-leading work, it was inevitable that exacting standards in bar design would spread beyond city limits.
"Blacksmith Lake Mulwala brings a lot of value to a regional town like that that really needs it," she says, raving about the tourism-boosting destination. "The public is becoming more and more discerning. They're after a space that feels good and creates an experience that goes beyond the food and drink offering."
While Studio Esteta's Best Cafe Design-winner was within Melbourne's boundaries, the stunning earthen-hued stone and wood style of Italian-inspired Via Porta is way out East in Mont Albert.
"That was phenomenal, a clear winner," Hansen says. "That's the great thing about good design, it's slowly spreading out because people are demanding more from their local cafe."
Sharing the Best Hotel Design award with the Richards and Spence-designed Calile Hotel in Brisbane's Fortitude Valley, Multiplicity's intimate expansion of boutique Port Fairy getaway Drift House makes the most of coastal views along the spectacular Great Ocean Road.
"In much the same way as Blacksmith, the client could see the value of re-investing in a great designer as they outgrew that space," Hansen notes.
"It links beautifully to the original."
If Melbourne's treasured inner-city laneways were feeling left out, then the induction of timeless Flinders Lane classic Cumulus Inc. into Eat Drink Design Awards Hall of Fame kept the angry hordes at bay.
Designed by Pascale Gomes-McNabb, Hansen said she's been hanging for the venue to swop past the ten-year mark so they could recognise the mark it's made on the CBD scene. "It still feels fresh more than ten years on and it really ushered in the idea of all-day dining."
A flattered Gomes-McNabb told Executive Style that Cumulus almost didn't happen, with she and ex-husband, restaurateur Andrew McConnell, overwhelmed: "We were in the throes of designing and building Cutler & Co, which was to be our big, grand restaurant, but then our good friend Sue Hampel – who owns Arc One Gallery – offered me the space. I thought it would be too much to take on. "
Heads in the clouds
Though they hesitated, the promise of the four-meter high ceilings and grand windows were too good to say no to and the rest is history.
"We were told by a few heavy hitting hospo folks back then that we were crazy, but we looked around at the longest-lasting restaurants in Melbourne that have a sort of timeless aesthetic," she says of the inspiration behind the sleek and stylish Cumulus' design, listing Pellegrini's Espresso Bar and Grossi Florentino's Cellar Bar and Bistro.
"Even though my aesthetic is fairly contemporary, I realised there are certain elements that you need, a cleanliness that gives longevity, where the food can keep evolving but the space would stay essentially the same," she adds.
The Hall of Famer's top tip for aspiring bar designers is simple. "I would just say make good plans, don't make haste. Do it properly, do it well and do it once."