Melbourne’s Caretaker’s Cottage is found inside a small cottage that dates back over one hundred years, tucked away in the city’s CBD.

Matt Stirling is no stranger to Melbourne’s hospitality scene, having worked with business partners Rob Libecans and Ryan Noreiks on Fancy Free, a pop-up and takeaway cocktail project that flourished during the city’s (many) lockdowns.

Stirling has also worked as a venue operator at the Black Pearl, and at the Lincoln Hotel Melbourne.

“Fancy Free is the embodiment of our values,” Stirling says.

“Because we were always interpreting new spaces, we weren’t really interested in carrying a theme or a concept with us into other people’s spaces. The best way to convey a new idea, for us, is to be unpretentious, direct and welcoming.”

However, Matt explains that the Fancy Free approach didn’t suit the venue of Caretaker’s Cottage.

“We opened Caretaker’s Cottage because the concept of Fancy Free just didn’t fit, and we were never going to try and force it.”

“It’s a literal caretaker’s cottage. It’s right behind the [Wesley Place] church in the middle of the city, there’s a beautiful grassy area, and the oldest tree in Melbourne is right in front of where we are,” Stirling continues.

“When you’re inside looking out,  you wouldn’t think you were in the city, because it’s small windows looking onto cobblestones and grass.”

Despite the obvious attractions of the space, there are drawbacks to operating out of such a small and historic venue.

“It’s a home, so the space is little rooms – which, when you think about a venue, well you want everything connected and there to be some kind of design to the space.”

“But then, pubs are pretty old and weird and pokey, and they’ve got their eclecticism and we just want to embrace that. We never saw that as an issue. The personality of the building is pretty undeniable – it’s pretty unique.”

The space certainly is idiosyncratic, featuring the original staircase and heritage features. And the drinks offering reflects this old-time feel, as Matt illustrates.

“The personality of the space is to keep it unpretentious. Guinness is always on, and we’ve always got a Martini – our favourite interpretation of.”

“The punch changes weekly, as do all the other drinks. Within in the makeup of our drinks offering, we’ve got three contemporaries and three classics, so we can pick out all of our favourites and create an offer that will have something for everyone,” Matt continues.

“It forces us to think about the drinks being absolutely approachable, and the best examples that will fit that slot for the week, and also creating a conversation – because there’s a lot of awesome drinks people don’t necessarily know.”

One example of such a drink is a clarified milk punch – a traditional English cocktail recipe that uses milk (later strained out) to add transparency and texture to a cocktail. At the time of our chat, Caretaker’s Cottage was offering an inventive spin on a French 75, interpreted as a milk punch.

The one disadvantage of the building, Matt says, is pure square metreage.

“Disadvantages: only that it’s not bigger… The nature of the building [also means] the process of getting everything built, designed and knocked into space is largely dependent on the bureaucracy of going through council and heritage bodies.”

But, Matt concedes, this is part and parcel of working in such a distinctive location. He also has advice for any other operators working in similar spaces.

“We got really good advice from a consultant who basically kept us on track,” Matt says.

“It’s just critical to have all your information in order to be really organised, and it shouldn’t be unreasonably lengthy.”

Caretaker’s Cottage is firmly located in the Melbourne CBD, and with the challenges of operating in the city centre well-documented, Bars & Clubs asked Matt how his team had managed opening in such an environment.

“We actually opened at a good time. When we opened, it was like people were coming back [into the city] for the first time, for work nearby. We were like ‘it feels like the city’s back.’”

For Matt, Caretaker’s Cottage’s cosy environment and approachable drinks offering is a reflection of his broader hospitality philosophy.

“Good hospitality is honesty, intensity in energy and attention to detail. The best service providers ask the best questions. And the best questions become better as people get more experience,” Matt says.

“Meet customers with your energy and they will respond in kind, and create this great vibe,” he concludes.

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