Subiaco is Back Kicking Goals

Reliance on footy all but forgotten as hospitality, heritage and high-rise reboot an historical suburban hub.

Post-football Subiaco is in the midst of a multi-million-dollar hospitality renaissance, drawing back into the soul of the city’s rich Italian heritage.

In stark contrast to the doom and gloom predicted after West Coast and Fremantle transferred their AFL home from Subiaco Oval to Optus Stadium in 2018, the city is fast rebuilding its identity by more substantive means than just each weekend’s game day.

While well-known developers are pouring in money for business and residential projects that are already towering over the Subiaco streets, some of WA hospitality’s heaviest hitters have identified the city as a social giant ready to be reawakened.

“I think the whole place is about to pop,” said 13-year Subiaco resident Benny Tua, who recently opened new modern Asian restaurant Shui, in the building which  formerly housed the iconic Funtastico.

“Subi is the last suburb that hasn’t been touched by the hospitality boom in Perth and while all the other suburbs grew up, it stayed the same. A lot of people said  Subiaco died, but it just didn’t adapt and finally it’s time.”

Just last year, outgoing Subiaco mayor Penny Taylor said the local council, which she claimed was wracked by “petty squabbles”, was “hanging on to functionality
by its fingertips”.

She described the council as “broken, ineffective and negative”.

But her successor, commercial lawyer David McMullen, said it was impossible to ignore the positivity driving back through the city. Mr McMullen said it was now conceivable that Subiaco was better off for having lost its previous football lifeline.

“It’s potentially a good thing and it’s forced a reinvention of Subiaco,” he said. “Subiaco occupies a little part of the psyche of most people in WA and it was a shame to see it go through a quiet patch . . . there was a general sense of pessimism. But it’s great to see the opposite happening now with the green shoots and people telling me that Subi has turned the corner.

“If we were on a bell curve, we’d be on the side that’s headed up and the optimism is very contagious. It’s quite fitting that the future of Subiaco’s high streets are going to have a lot to do with hospitality because that’s where we started.

“People who come here get to tap into a place with a very rich history and a heritage we’ll continue to celebrate. They also get to be part of a community which is looking to the future.”

A proud homeland for Noongar people long before the first European settlers came to the area, a group of Benedictine monks arrived in 1851 and called their monastery “New Subiaco”.

It was in reference to the birthplace of the Benedictine Order in the Italian town of Subiaco. The city still maintains olive trees and an olive branch is part of its coat of arms.

Much of the foot-traffic optimism has been driven by developer Paul Blackburne’s $300 million One Subiaco tower, which set a sale record in 2020 when a penthouse sold for $15.9m, eclipsing the previous mark of $15.2m for a South Perth apartment. Last year, the Rokeby Road complex set another record with a $17m

The West Australian recently revealed that major developers including Blackburne, Peet and Mirvac were circling one of the biggest land releases of the year at Subiaco East.

The City of Subiaco has also noted the lowest retail vacancy rates in five years and the launch of the airport line in October, with trains arriving every six minutes in peak hour, has added further impetus.

And the city — which has a high median income and some 20,000 people in it each day — is upgrading several key pedestrian thoroughfares, including Seddon Street, Postal Walk, Forrest Walk and Station Square, to make them more contemporary and to entice visitors to stay for longer.

La Condesa and Subiaco Continental, proposed respectively by hospitality identities Clint Nolan and Miles Hull, are just two of many new venues set to cash on an expected population explosion in Subiaco that has been estimated to grow from the 17,914 residents recorded at the 2021 Census to 28,592 by 2046.

Popular eatery Lulu La Delizia was awarded Gourmet Traveller’s and The West Australian Good Food Guide’s Restaurant of the Year. The city’s most prominent  social staple, the Subiaco Hotel, has also undergone a classy change and has a $2.5m upgrade of its carpark and bottle shop planned to transform it into a family-friendly outdoor space.

Co-owner Lawson Douglas, who along with business partner Dave Allan has also regenerated Bunbury’s Rose Hotel and Kalgoorlie’s Exchange Hotel, said the momentum in the city had felt tangible since they bought the 125-year-old watering hole in 2019. He described the hotel as the, “grand old dame of Perth”.

“Subiaco has always been one of the best precincts and town centres in Perth,” Mr Douglas said. “It’s easy to point the finger at the big loss of the football, but the football didn’t make Subiaco. The football was only on for some 35 days a year and there are a lot more days in a year than that.

“Subiaco has soul and it’s at the crossroads of so many thoroughfares that it is Perth’s natural meeting point. It was on its knees, but it was never going to stay down for long.”

When The Witch’s Cauldron restaurant, widely famed for its garlic prawns, closed in 2018 after nearly 50 years of operation, critics wondered whether it would ever be successfully replaced. Now known as Dilly Dally and with a Bar Loiter extension at the back, co-owner Patrick Ryan was optimistic about what their $2 million
investment could bring.

“We decided Subi couldn’t get any worse, then COVID happened and it did,” said Mr Ryan, who is also a co-owner of Perth’s popular Lalla Rookh.

“We remember coming to Subi when it was heaving, and losing the footy was probably the last nail in the coffin. But we saw that as the beginning of the resurgence  and felt it still had a huge amount of potential.

“We were convinced Subi was on the up and we wanted to be a big part of it. We feel the groundswell will continue to keep growing and we’re looking forward at what’s to come.” Mr Tua and his business partner Leigh Power, who was named WA’s Chef of the Year at this year’s Restaurant & Catering Awards, have been involved in a host of acclaimed venues including The Old Synagogue, The Beaufort, Sweetwater Rooftop Bar, Mechanic’s Institute and El Grotto.

They know what works in the industry and have spent about $1m preparing Shui for business. Mr Tua said its success was also personal. “All my three children were born in Subiaco and go to Subiaco Primary School,” he said.

“I’ve opened up venues in other suburbs and made them cool, but I’ve always been a bit sad that there hasn’t been much happening in my home town.

“I’ve been really keen for a long time to open up something in Subiaco and when I saw the (for sale) sign out the front (of Funtastico), I couldn’t believe it, because it as been such an iconic venue.

“It used to go off back in the day and it was one of the places to come, so it’s really cool to be the new gatekeeper of this place.”

The owners of Subiaco’s Bark bar have gradually built its popularity since opening five years ago and one of them, Mitchell Jenkin, said they had built such faith in the city that they decided to also open Lums Wine Bar as a separate operation.

“We were thinking not in Subiaco if anything, just to not cannibalise ourselves,” Mr Jenkin said. “It was a tough time and rock bottom when we opened Bark and the football had just gone, but year-on-year it’s seemed to get better and better and it seems like a really great time to be in Subi.

“The vacancies have flipped from all being vacant to having pretty much nothing left, so we’re really excited about the next year  especially.”

Subiaco also has an extra visitor bonus with free parking for the first hour, as well as after 5pm and each weekend.