The long-standing bar now has a Miami-inspired fit-out, summery cocktails and, for the first time ever, tap beers.
Ponyfish Island has delivered few big changes in the decade it's spent atop the Yarra, beneath the Evan Walker Bridge. Until now. The legendary bar reopened last week, showing off the results of a long-planned revamp, which came to fruition during Melbourne's latest lockdown.
Owners Jerome Borazio (Laneway Festival, Back Alley Sally's), DJ Grant Smillie (Melbourne City Brewing Co, and LA's EP & LP) and Andrew Mackinnon (from marketing communication agency The Taboo Group) opened the boozer ten years ago to the month. But the unique set of challenges that comes with such an unconventional location have meant a makeover's been on the wishlist for almost half that time. Bags of ice and bottled drinks had to all be lugged in by hand, and powering appliances often managed to black out half of nearby Southbank.
"We realised the business itself wasn't broken, so it was a risk saying 'start again'," Mackinnon tells Concrete Playground. "But the only way to fix it, to make it more efficient, was to strip the whole thing down...and start again." The guys have worked with Adelaide's Studio Gram on multiple makeover plans over the past few years, but various delays kept putting renovations on hold. It wasn't until COVID-19 lockdowns struck that the timing fell into place and this latest design iteration was able to be brought to life.
"We were running Ponyfish right up until that week hospitality venues were told to close and it was about that exact week we'd always planned to close," remembers the co-owner. "And so building was allowed to continue."
Of course, construction wasn't without its own challenges, requiring a barge to be sent up the Yarra just to move building materials to and from the bar. But now, Ponyfish Island's new look is finally complete, ready for a balmy riverside summer.
"We were really focused on improving the aesthetic, instead of being that shanty shack, dive bar in the middle of the Yarra," explains Mackinnon. "I think we've challenged what people would expect, it's a bit more modern, more Miami," he says of Studio Gram's newly chic space full of curves and terrazzo.
There are now additional bathrooms and extra seating, bumping up capacity to 150 (outside of restrictions), while custom-made adjustable shade paddles rise artistically above the bar's al fresco section. Much of the space is reserved for walk-ins, though there are three green-cushioned booth set-ups available to book.
For the first time, the venue's got its own cool room, ice machines and beer lines, the latter pouring a concise range of tap brews that includes a recreation of the Ponyfish lager. Elsewhere on the drinks list, you'll find some bottled beers, an Aussie-led wine selection and a handful of summer-inspired cocktails — ranging from a share-friendly rosé sangria, to the Ponystar Martini crafted with passionfruit liqueur and mango syrup.
Meanwhile, a vastly bigger kitchen will be making its debut in the coming weeks, turning out a secret menu from what Mackinnon hints is some "exciting" chef talent.
Images: Julia Sansone