Interview: Owner of The St. Hotel, Paul Nguyen
St Kilda’s Fitzroy Street has long been a place where reputations are made or lost. This iconic seaside strip has seen businesses come and go, trying to harness a notoriously fussy consumer market.
Located at number 54, on the corner of Canterbury Road, The Saint Hotel closed its doors in mid 2012. Since that time, owners Paul Nguyen and Simon Blacher (of Saigon Sally and Hanoi Hannah fame) have been busy renovating the former bar and nightclub. Their aim, to reopen as The St. Hotel, a relaxed and affordable restaurant come supper club offering signature cocktails and authentic Thai food, designed by Head Chef Sean Judd, whose own background includes residencies at Melbourne stalwarts Chin Chin and Longrain.
In the early 1950’s the Saint Hotel was a communal St Kilda bank and it was only after Nguyen purchased the building in 1999 that it became the central hub of an already bustling entertainment district. The former DJ saw a gap in a rapidly broadening market for a venue that offered a large-scale club environment with a bar atmosphere. The result was legendary and once again the owner hopes to tap into a cultural zeitgeist. Something that he, along with business partner Blacher, have managed to do successfully for over a decade.
Nguyen: “I started Hanoi Hannah and Saigon Sally around 3 years ago, with the explosion in fun, chic food with a focus on healthy cuisine. I’ve seen the success in that and wanted to bring that back to St Kilda because, until now, Fitzroy Street has catered mainly toward backpackers and fast food. I thought that it would be good to bring quality back to the area but without the price tag, so it’s accessible to both local people as well as out-of-towners. People can come in to eat some food and then kick on late with a drink. There was a definite change in the market and I saw that as a strategy to reopen The St.”
Nguyen classifies the reopening of the hotel as a rebirth, a chance for him to revisit and perfect his first-born venue. The word “excitement” is mentioned and a palpable energy is evident as he describes the newly remodelled space. “I’ve been working on this project for nearly 3 years now and in the last 6 months I’ve taken on more of a project management role. I’ve had a lot of input into the interior, design and the aesthetic of it. It’s nice to be able to create something that I know that people will love and enjoy. I know that it will be functional, in the sense that it will have great food and a great atmosphere, it’s going to be huge and offer something that not many venues in Melbourne have been able to offer before.”
It’s a surefire recipe for success and Paul promises that the new and improved St. Hotel, its recently redeveloped neighbour The George (along with several high quality restaurants opening up on the busy street) will help define the renaissance of St Kilda.
Nguyen: “I think Fitzroy Street was just tired, it just didn’t have an element of quality food. Not only do we want to be successful in what we do but we also want success for the businesses surrounding us. We realise that the more businesses that are doing well, the better Fitzroy Street will become. Ideally we’d like to be known as a local hangout, not just for St Kilda residents, but also for people who might be coming in from the surrounding suburbs. I’m hoping that the next few years will be fantastic.”