Lower Johnston Street — the section beyond Brunswick, Smith and Wellington — has been quietly rallying against the increasing gentrification of Melbourne's inner north. For years, the austere grey streetscape has played the role of a front, while in dark and confined corners, creative minds have grouped together to preserve what's left of that old-Melbourne vibe.
Beyond the ornate western typeface, painted in drop shadow on its large smokey windows, Nighthawks is perhaps the new pièce de résistance in the lower Johnston Street revolution. Step inside and — not unlike a '54 Stratocaster —the letters cast a brilliant yellow-red sunburst over the room.
A cursory glance would nod to creative influences from far-flung places; inside you'll see saloon doors formed from frosted glass, a sizzling record player, a Williams pinball machine from 1979 — imported from Germany and still sporting the 2 Deutsche Mark label over the coin slot — and the venue's heart and soul: a simple wooden bar lined with black leather stools and a well-stocked liquor cabinet.
Nighthawks could well fit in on the streets of Osaka or San Francisco — or behind an unmarked door in a Berlin back-alley — but there is something about this place that is uniquely Melbourne. It's the kind of place Nick Cave would have drunk at in the '80s (back when you could still see him play with The Birthday Party, and probably for around $10). It captures the essence of old Fitzroy and Collingwood, back when it was still an affordable area to the artists, musicians and poets who lived and performed there.
Sharing a wall with Bluebird Espresso, and across the road from the Bendigo Hotel, Nighthawks is in good company. It's also the perfect middle ground for when you want to sip on a whisky, enjoy a pint, or just sit back, relax and take in the soothing cracks and pops of a spinning piece of pressed black wax.
Nighthawks may be the new kid on the block, but it feels a bit like a friend's place you've been hanging out in for years. The front bar plays host to regular intimate live performances, while the heated rear beer garden doubles as an outdoor pop-up cinema every second Wednesday night. You can even order pizza from across the road — as long as you play nice. You wouldn't be a jerk at a friend's house, so as the Nighthawks dictum states: be nice or leave.
Images: Lewis Fischer.