How (and why) Ben Luzz renovated a nearly 30 year old Melbourne icon

‘There’s a double economy thing happening at the moment,’ says the Gin Palace owner.

How (and why) Ben Luzz renovated a nearly 30 year old Melbourne icon
Ben Luzz at Melbourne icon Gin Palace. Photo: Dean Schmideg

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How do you look after an icon, but keep one eye on the future? How do you keep a bar with a storied history — one that occupies an important place in the drinks story of the country — relevant?

Most importantly: how do you keep that bar filled with guests and making money?

Those are the kinds of questions that Ben Luzz has had to reckon with as the owner of Melbourne icon Gin Palace. It’s a seminal bar in the history of gin and cocktails in Australian history, and was opened in 1997 by the charismatic Vernon Chalker. Ben first stepped behind the bar there in 2001, and aside from a stint overseas, has never really left.

“We opened up Madame Brussels [in 2006] because I wanted to sort of move on,” Ben tells me on this episode of Drinks At Work. “And then I told Vernon I wanted to leave and I wanted to open up my own bar. He offered me a piece of Gin Palace, so I came back down and helped it come back to life because by then it had sort of deteriorated a lot. Just worked 20 hour days for a year and brought it back and yeah, haven’t left since.”

Ben took on full ownership of Gin Palace and the bar next door, Bar Ampere, after Vernon passed away in 2020, and at the start of this year closed the bar for 33 days for renovations.

“The whole bar got pulled out,” Ben says. “Originally in 1997, it was a vinyl bar top with a literal sink as an ice well, and a sort of double speed rail that sat behind the ice well. And look, we made do for years. Back then, Gin Palace was probably doing 60% cocktails out of the sales. Now we’re doing something like 92, 93% is cocktails. And the bar just wasn’t up to scratch. So [we] designed a no-step, stainless steel bar that just has everything right there within your reach, a freezer drawer that you can drop your hands into to get ice out, so yeah, so it’s really been brought up to spec.”

The revamped Gin Palace. Photo: Dean Schmideg
The revamped Gin Palace. Photo: Dean Schmideg

Ben has also added two new venues to the stable that already included Gin Palace and Bar Ampere. In 2020, he opened Bijou Bottle Store at one end of Russell Place, and a few doors down from Bar Ampere opened Black Kite Commune last year.

All four bars landed on the Top 50 Boothby Best Bars in Victoria last year.

So we talk about those challenges, how he strikes a balance between respecting the past and legacy of Gin Palace and being equipped for the future, and about the conflicting signs in the hospitality economy these days. It’s a great chat.

You can listen to Drinks At Work on Apple PodcastsSpotifyAmazon Music and on Android.

“A bar that opened in the 1800s in Budapest, and had been reopened in the 1950s...”

There’s a long history to Gin Palace. It has always felt a little bit out of its time, and that’s by design. Its founder Vernon Chalker told me in 2015 that “we didn’t start off to be the new kind of thing, we started off to make it look like it’s already been there for a long time — that was part of our image. We weren’t following any design trends or anything like that.

“As an owner, you’ve got create a place you want to go yourself, and I still feel that Gin Palace is the one I want to go to — it’s still my favourite. I’ve had input into every aspect of it, and sometimes my managers get a bit disgruntled because I don’t want to make changes that they think could bring it out of the dark ages, but they might just need to move on because Gin Palace is just how it is, you know? That’s how I want it to be.”

“I’ve always thought of Gin Palace as a late adopter.”

When you’ve got a bar with such a long legacy, the danger is that new things come along and displace it in people’s minds. Perhaps some of that is already happening — in this interview, Ben says that the crowd Black Kite Commune tends to attract is younger than the older crowd they get into Gin Palace.

But you also don’t want to plunge too far into the future, and in the process make the place unrecognisable. People love Gin Palace, so if you change it too much, you’ll lose some people.

So Ben likes to think of the place as a late adopter. It doesn’t need to be first to move into the shiny new thing, instead, they wait, and adopt new trends once it makes sense for them to do so.

“There’s a bit of a double economy thing going on.”

Every Tuesday in Good Food brings more bad news for hospitality. And Ben agrees that times are difficult for hospitality operators. But he sees bright spots, too, and a lot of positivity with new operators launching their first bars. It just means, and Ben agrees, that if you’re going to survive you’ve got to be great at what you do and can never take your eye off the ball.

No-one deserves to be around for ever, just because you’ve been around. As Ben says, service is always number one.