The greatest comeback since Lazarus! Subiaco has awakened from its slumber

Source: WA Today

If you told a Millennial or Gen Zedder that Subiaco was once the coolest nightlife destination in the Perth metropolitan area they would wonder what recreational drugs you’ve been sprinkling on your All-Bran.

Yet for those of us who were out and about before the Y2K freak-out Subi was synonymous with inner-city chic and vibrancy, where professionals, party-ers and celebrating footy fans ate and drank and Rockeby’n’rolled all night.

The Subiaco Hotel was always overflowing, clubs were jumping late into the evening, legendary comedians such as Billy Connolly and Barry Humphreys were regularly selling out the Regal Theatre, people would drive to the Subi strip to shop and, most remarkable of all, Subi boasted a 24/7 eatery, The Oriel Cafe, which we all headed to after squarer quarters had shut down.

Then around the turn of the millennium Subiaco went from being a mecca for the smart set to a nanna neighbourhood, still beautiful – it is, for me, the prettiest of the town centres – but so devoid of activity and energy I’m surprised the council didn’t install a life support machine outside the Witch’s Cauldron (oh, I forgot: Subi’s famed culinary landmark served its last garlic prawn in 2018).

However, in the past few months the talk of the town has been that Subiaco has woken from its coma and is recapturing a bit of its lusty old self.

Cool new cafes, restaurants and bars are popping up everywhere; the site of the long-time derelict Subiaco Markets now boasts the stylish apartment and retail complex Subiaco One; workers have returned and are filling up the streets and lunchtime places; there is an exploding nighttime scene; and the promise of more to come, with Subiaco East – carved out of the green acres where Subiaco Oval once sat – set to deliver 400 new homes.

To find out why Subi slipped off the radar and how it is clawing its way back into the consciousness I sat down with a businesswoman who knows the area as well as anyone: Regal Theatre general manager Kim Knight.

“Subiaco in the 1990s and into the early 2000s was a pumping place,” says Knight, whose father Stan Bird took over the Regal in the 1970s and transformed it into one of Perth’s leading live performance spaces.

“The Subiaco Hotel was huge. You had to line up to get in and there were bands in the front bar. Then there were several nightclubs, such as Boko’s, which were a big draw. Subi was the place to be.”

Many trace the decline of Subiaco to the decommissioning of Subiaco Oval in 2017 and its demolition two years later.

However, Knight believes Subi slipped into a slumber several years earlier when its notoriously negative council failed to take advantage of the change in the small bar laws that were designed to inject life into inner-city neighbourhoods.

“Small bars were popping up everywhere – in the city, in Leederville, in Northbridge, in Beaufort Street. Small bars were on trend. It changed the way people drank and ate,” she says.

“Instead of going to big establishments they would start drinking in one bar then move on to the next and then on to a restaurant. But we missed out on this transformation in hospitality because of the failure to act on the change in laws. Consequently, Subiaco was left a decade behind.”

Another major blow for Subiaco was the emergence of suburban shopping centres. While malls have murdered retail in every inner-city shopping precinct it has been especially devastating for Subiaco, which for decades has been a destination for those looking to buy something a little out of the ordinary. Shopping was integral to Subi’s identity and economic vitality.

“It was the perfect storm,” says Knight, who is one of the movers and shakers in the town team SUBIaction, a collection of local business people and concerned citizens whose aim is to bring life and energy into the area.

“The lack of bars and restaurants meant there was little choice for people after they’ve been to one of our shows, the loss of Subiaco Oval impacted the bigger venues and the big shopping centres meant we had less foot traffic. The place was a shadow of its former self.”

Andrew Watt of the Jolimont-based consultancy Creating Communities believes that Subiaco didn’t sink as low as is commonly thought. It just seemed that way from the outside.

“Subiaco lost control of the narrative,” argues Watt.

“While it suffered the same shifts in fashion that afflict any neighbourhood the narrative that took hold was the one about Subiaco being in terminal decline. It wasn’t entirely true, but it didn’t matter. The narrative created its own reality.

Watt says that there has been a major turnaround in the past year or so, with a new optimistic spirit luring new businesses and residents.

“The narrative has been recaptured. There is definitely a new vibe,” he says.

Watt believes that the loss of the Subiaco Markets and the long delay in developing the site did more damage to Subiaco’s reputation than the loss of AFL.

“The markets were closed for so long and the delay in developing the site so protracted that it became a symbol of Subiaco’s decline,” says Watt.

“But now with Subi One complete and a lot of really classy hospitality operators moving into the area it bodes well for the revival of Subiaco. The council now needs to focus on making going to Subiaco a great experience.”

Perhaps the most important sign of Subi’s resurrection is that the age of people who are enjoying the restaurants and bars, taking in the shows at the Regal and the Subiaco Arts Centre and, hopefully, sticking around for some shopping has dropped.

“Subiaco has picked up a reputation for being staid and starchy. But that’s changing,” Watt says.

“There are some amazing places to eat and we now have the bars that are drawing a younger crowd. Young people go to places that are exciting, so it’s a good measure of how we’re going.”

City of Subiaco mayor David McMullen is stunned by the speed of the revival, which Rex Hunt or Dennis Cometti might have described as “the greatest comeback since Lazarus”.

“I’m surprised at how fast it’s happened,” says McMullen, a lawyer and father-of-two elected in 2021.

“Optimism, like pessimism, is contagious. Once people see a collection of good businesses flourishing in Subiaco it lures other businesses. As a council, I believe we’ve done a fantastic job in delivering the kinds of events that draw people into Subiaco.”

McMullen believes the real sign of confidence in Subiaco is the quality of hospitality operators who have moved into the strip.

Among the big names who have opened businesses are Miles Hull (Little Creatures, Alex Hotel, Jetty Bar), whose Subi Continental is garnering rave reviews; 2022 WA Chef of the Year Leigh Power and Benny Tua of the Mechanics Institute and the Old Synagogue’s collection of bars have opened Shui; and Northbridge “bar baron” Clint Nolan (Alabama Song, La Cholita) has opened a mod-Mexican cantina called La Condesa in the old Oriel space on Hay Street.

“Players with these track records wouldn’t move into a suburb that’s in decline,” argues McMullen. “They’re arrival is a good indication of how Subiaco is tracking.”

Retail, however, remains a challenge for Subiaco.

“There are some great retailers in Subiaco who have been there a long time. They have the economic models that have seen them through bad times,” McMullen says.

“And we have some very contemporary planning schemes that will ensure our town centre is not just all bars and restaurants but has a range of commercial activities.”