INSIDER: Sleepy Subiaco gets its groove back as stars align for in-vogue suburb’s second coming

Source: The West Australian

There’s an overwhelming sense of deja vu in Subiaco as scenes from 20 years ago repeat themselves in the long-suffering suburb.

Restaurants are pumping, new venues are popping up on a regular basis and suddenly it is not uncommon to see people queuing to get into the latest hotspot.

Suddenly Subi has its buzz back and crowds are flocking in from all over Perth to check it out.

The only thing missing to indicate you haven’t in fact travelled back a couple of decades in time to Subiaco’s heyday, ironically, is the oval that became the beating heart of the inner-city suburb’s well-documented popularity.

There’s a collective sigh of relief among hospitality operators, though, that this time around there isn’t a stadium that can be ripped out, subsequently taking all the foot traffic with it. As they stage a comeback bigger than anything ever witnessed on the famous former footy ground, businesses old and new are quietly confident Subiaco won’t ever again veer into uncool territory. They are determined to ensure this is where the deja vu ends.

If there is ever any doubt Subi’s troubled past won’t repeat itself, you only need to look up to the soaring 23-storey skyscraper that has single-handedly been credited for heralding the oft-maligned precinct into an exciting new era. Not only has ONE Subiaco brought in more than 500 new residents to the area, the man behind the project, Paul Blackburne, knows the suburb well enough to bring the best of old Subiaco back and leave behind the worst of it.

He lived in the area at the peak of its popularity, and even back in his 20s he had the foresight to recognise it wasn’t the sea of footy fans that made Subiaco special.

“Twenty years ago, I came back from five or six years overseas, and back then Subiaco was the place to be,” he recalls.

Buying a modest one-bedroom apartment in the area, Blackburne says it was the only inner city precinct in Perth that came close to offering a similar vibe to the cities he’d lived in, in Europe.

ONE Subiaco by Blackburne Property Group.
ONE Subiaco by Blackburne Property Group. Credit: Supplied/TheWest

“You could get up on a Saturday and you’d go to the Station Street markets and the Pavilion markets, and they were just packed and it had this great vibe and you’d go down Rokeby Road and there were lots of restaurants and bars and people lining up,” he says.

From his new Blackburne headquarters, on the first floor of ONE Subiaco, he delightfully observes the suburb coming back to life.

“I’m looking over Rokeby right now and it’s just awesome — you can just see people walking down the street and there’s a bit of a vibe; there’s not many vacant shops now,” he says. “It used to be the place to go 10, 20, 30 years ago and then it was just struggling and then it was even harder when we started construction but now, I went to Shui on Friday night and there was a line out the front.”

Also proving the old is not always lost to new development, Blackburne has committed to reviving the Pavilion Market vibe where his formidable tower now resides.

In addition to opening Subi Continental on the ground floor to a stream of rave reviews, he has brought back that bustling market atmosphere he got swept up in all those years ago.

For the first time since the Subiaco Pavilion Market permanently closed its doors 15 years ago, thousands gathered at the site in October to enjoy a modern twist on a cherished tradition when ONE Subiaco launched its long awaited retail precinct. Blending tradition with innovation, the One Subiaco Markets has pop-up stalls scattered amongst permanent tenancies.

“We have permanent markets, shops, bars and restaurants below that have just opened or opening soon but we are also having special events over the year. We are planning huge events for the first Saturday of every month and expecting 10,000 people to come and see Subiaco again,” Blackburne says.

Another venue underpinning the suburb’s rebirth through a nostalgic lens is the Subiaco Hotel. Arguably the most visited watering hole before or after any big game, the absence of Subi Oval was especially felt at the iconic pub.

Subiaco Hotel publican Dane Oddy says the area dropped off so much when footy left, the hotel got new owners and was revamped in a bid to re-establish itself post-football.

Paul Blackburne near the pool on the 6th floor of ONE  Subiaco.
Paul Blackburne near the pool on the 6th floor of ONE Subiaco. Credit: Ross Swanborough/ Ross Swanborough

“I think the hotel has always been the beacon and the meeting point for everybody in the area, kind of like the town hall. And the building’s got so much charm and history to it. I think that’s kind of like the test for the area — if the hotel’s doing well, the whole area’s kind of doing well,” he says.

The renovations faithfully retained the classic Australian front bar, with its rich American oak floors, while adding two brand new mezzanine levels, an added roof deck and a newly refreshed lobby bar. “I think there were quite hard times after the football but after the renovation, it just seems like there’s just been a new sense of confidence in the air,” Oddy says.

“There are a bunch of new bricks and mortar businesses that opened up, as well other hospitality operators, which I do think has driven a lot of that as well, so that’s been really nice to see. And over the last probably year and a half, the whole area has kind of come back and there’s actually quite a good buzz around the area.”

Refreshingly though, Oddy believes while patrons are keen to see the area do well based on their own fond memories of its football era, Subiaco is breaking away from its footy-centric past.

I think the hotel has always been the beacon and the meeting point for everybody in the area … I think that’s kind of like the test for the area — if the hotel’s doing well, the whole area’s kind of doing well.

Subi Hotel publican Dane Oddy

“Without all these huge events they once needed to anchor the suburb, Subiaco has had the opportunity to redefine itself and that touches back on the quality of the hospitality operators which are restoring the suburb to its former glory,” Oddy says.

“But I didn’t have any kind of trepidation coming into an area that was perceived to be like a ghost town because it’s still close to the city, it’s supported really well by the local community that all want it to do really well and we’re just there to restore a bit of trust and faith back into community.”

A major part of that includes expanding the venue further to enhance its outdoor and family-friendly dining offerings.

“It’s going to be really high quality, really tasteful and hopefully something that the locals and the residents are really proud of at the same time,” Oddy says.

Still in its planning stages, Oddy reveals the extension into the car park next door would most likely be completed in 2024.

Australian Hotels Association WA chief executive Bradley Woods believes the purchase and renovation of Subiaco Hotel in 2019 by LocalsCo was a significant turning point in the suburb’s long-running slump.

“The development of the Subiaco Hotel was quickly followed by a variety of new small bars, pubs, restaurants and residential developments, providing plenty of reasons for people to return to the suburb,” he says.

“The truth is, Subiaco was always destined for a revival due to its proximity to the city and its rich history as a premier hospitality precinct.”

According to Woods, Subiaco suffered a major identity crisis when Subi Oval closed in 2017, which was further compounded by the loss of the Station Street Markets and its foot traffic, so it was unsurprising it took some time for the area to bounce back.

“At least we know that the suburb will likely never again go through the shock of losing so much foot traffic in a short period of time,” Wood says.

“Also, there are now a number of large residential developments that provides a long-term customer base that wasn’t there previously.” He also praises the courage of hospitality operators for their substantial investment in the area in the past five years to propel Subiaco’s recovery.

Renowned restaurateur Clint Nolan was one such operator, raising a few eyebrows when he announced he was opening an eatery in a location that was still struggling to shake its “uncool” tag. But he had no doubt when he opened La Condesa that Subiaco was on the verge of a stunning comeback.

“I had a feeling that Subi was going to make a comeback and have always loved the area,” Nolan says.

“I’ve been very fortunate in my career to pick areas like Northbridge before they take off, and it just felt like the time was right to create a fun and casual offering for the suburb.”

Clint Nolan at La Condesa.
Clint Nolan at La Condesa. Credit: Iain Gillespie/ Iain Gillespie

Call it a punt that paid off, or Nolan’s Midas touch, but the Mexican eatery has been so well received, he decided to expand with a second venue, Bar Banter, in the rear laneway.

“La Condesa has also started trading seven days, added lunch service, and we plan to add a bottomless brunch offering on weekends later this year. Things are definitely moving in the right direction,” he adds.

Nolan also credits quality operators such as Subi Continental, Shui, Lums Wine Bar, Dilly Dally and the Subiaco Hotel for propelling the area’s resurgence.

The Vic Hotel may just be the last remaining puzzle piece in Subiaco’s second coming, with the once-heaving pub still boarded up since being snapped up by South Perth’s The Windsor Hotel owner Geoffrey Ogden in 2020 for $5 million.

At least we know that the suburb will likely never again go through the shock of losing so much foot traffic in a short period of time.

AHA boss Bradley Woods

Though he remains tight-lipped about what he has planned for the landmark pub, he does promise it will be unlike anything on offer in the thriving precinct — a big call when you consider the calibre of venues that have opened up in recent years.

“We want to do something really special and it’s trying to find the trades here that can do it — it’s likely to be done overseas and then brought in,” Ogden says.

“There was one bar in particular in San Francisco that took my eye. It won’t be the beige or modernist architecture; we’re looking for something very different from that,” he teases.

With business confidence in the area high, City of Subiaco mayor David McMullen believes there is no doubt Subiaco is “cool” again and will stay that way moving forward.

“There’s no question that Subiaco in the last couple of years has shot up from the bottom of its curve. There is enough in the pipeline to expect our city is only just gathering momentum, which will continue for years to come,” he says.

“It’s really exciting to see hospitality heavy hitters setting up shop in the City of Subiaco.

“They talk to each other and are echoing the messages about what makes Subi great. We now have award-winning restaurants, some of Perth’s best bakeries and coffee shops, and we’ve had several hot spots relocate specifically to Subiaco because it’s the place to be, as well as existing Subiaco businesses choosing to invest in an expansion.”

Additionally, an influx of new families coming to the area to take advantage of the new Bob Hawke College and older people looking to downsize means the crowds swarming to Subiaco are no longer dissipating soon after a final siren sounds.

“Footy is a big part of the area’s history and identity. It’s one reason why the name Subiaco is known by people around the country,” McMullen says.

“When professional footy moved out of Subiaco, the immediate effects on business were significant, and have been well-publicised.

“Following some difficult trading conditions, and a period of adjustment, our city now has a renewed vibrancy, buzz and identity that’s not reliant on game day — it’s forced a mindset that favours businesses with a point of difference; businesses whose success is self-determined and not just reliant on which teams are playing.

“It is not just the business community but also our residential community who are enjoying the here and now, and looking forward to an even brighter future.”

For all those returning to Subiaco and noting similarities to its former glory days, the key players behind its revival want you to notice the glaring difference this time around — the sea of Dockers scarves and Eagles beanies are well and truly gone and more importantly, the suburb is no longer missing them.