A transformation that had its origins from an idea by Richmond hotelier Jon De Fraga five years ago comes to fruition on Friday with the re-opening of the Kingston Hotel after more than a year.
It was around the time of the death of his father, Chris De Fraga - a Melbourne motoring writer and radio host - that he formed the idea to renovate the hotel in Highett St and turn its dining room into a high-quality steak and seafood restaurant.
"I always thought there was a spot in the market for combining the two, as no one else was really doing it," De Fraga said. "You could go to Bacash for seafood or Rockpool for a steak, there wasn't really anyone combining both of those concepts."
However, De Fraga - the principal of the De Fraga Group that also owns the Swan Hotel and Public House on Church St - has taken it to the next level.
The menu features a range of graded wagyu steaks and seafood that includes fish, lobsters, Alaskan King Crab legs and caviar, ranging in price from the affordable to the lavish. The steaks are cooked Argentinian-style over hot coals, a technique that took De Fraga and his co-head chef to South America for several weeks to perfect.
The internal renovation of the 168-year-old hotel took 14-months, with Covid delays, and cost more than $1.5 million. The 90-plus seater dining room has been transformed by a contemporary design that is still stylishly retro and befitting of the menu. The courtyard was redesigned by Melbourne landscaper Jim Fogarty and the front bar given a complete refit.
De Fraga's career in hotels had an unexpected beginning. He was studying science and commerce at Melbourne University in 1988 and living at Trinity College when he took up a job washing dishes at Naughton's, a pub across the road. He failed in all subjects in his first year and repeated. "I was having a bit too much fun living in college and working in the pub and got distracted by it," De Fraga says.
"I worked my way through kitchen hand jobs to working behind bars, becoming a duty manager then a venue manager," he says. De Fraga went on to run the Malvern for a couple of years, then the Hotel Max in Commercial Rd, now L'Hotel Gitan, before branching into hotel ownership.
He still was working through his university studies while at the Malvern, but ultimately dropped out.
At the age of 27, De Fraga teamed up with two friends to buy the Richmond Club hotel in 1997. He was attracted by the vibe of hotels in Richmond, with the proximity to the MCG and other major event venues another drawcard.
"Even if we were not all that good at what we were doing, we thought we'd get some trade because of the closeness to the MCG and entertainment precinct," he says.
"I fell in love with the area and the people around Richmond. I've never owned anything outside of Richmond and not sure I ever will."
De Fraga sold the Richmond Club in 2000 and bought The Kingston in 2001. "I bought the Swan Hotel in 2008 and got that firing and the Public House in Church St in 2013."
He conducted substantial work on the Public House, turning it into a four-floor hip hotel with outdoor areas and a rooftop deck offering superb city views, at a cost $4.5 million.
"I put two more floors on it. Trying to do this through Covid was just a nightmare," he says. "It was to be about a four-month build but ended up being about 20 months."
However, The Kingston is something close to his heart. "It's always been a gastropub," he says. "We've always sold more wine than beer. It is more of a restaurant with a bar than a hotel with a restaurant.
"We've catered for everyone's budget," De Fraga says. "You can come in an have a hanger steak for $36 and a grain-fed porterhouse with a marble score of four-plus for $43.
"We've tried to stay true to our heritage a little bit by recognising that we are, in fact, a pub. We still have a front bar where you can watch some sport, drink tap beer and get an affordable meal, or you can spend a bit more.
"The wine list covers everything. I had two rules when creating the list. It must be a good wine and I must love to drink them."
The dining room, renamed Marble & Pearl, will have two co-head chefs. Yallambar Bantawa and Paul Muir.
Bantawa, a chef at a number of prominent restaurants including Easy Tiger and Da Noi, accompanied De Fraga to Argentina and will look after the coal-fired meats. Muir, a former chef at Bacash, will be in charge of the seafood.
De Fraga said there would be a bit of theatre associated with the dining room. "I wanted to have an ageing cabinet where we hang different types of beef, so people would be able to see from the dining room the chefs carving off their steak and placing on the grill," he says.
"We've brought back cheese trolleys, a caviar trolley; caesar salads will prepared table-side for two people. We are using the exact same recipe from the original in Tijuana. It is a bit of old-school that has become new school."
Despite the families of De Fraga's grandparents on both sides running hotels in country Victoria and Melbourne, it skipped a generation with his father - who initially disapproved of his son's move into hotels, Yet The Kingston became a favourite of his and he enjoyed many a lunch there.
"Dad used to wind me up on hotels. 'When are you going to settle down and get a real job or finish your studies', he'd say.
"When I bought the Richmond Club, he was pretty anti it, but we did quite well out of it. We sold it to Lion Nathan, or Toohey's as it was back then, for about four times what we paid for it. Dad said if you are doing anything like that again, I wouldn't mind doing it with you.
"He got involved with the Kingston when we bought that. He used to love the pub. Loved his food and his wine. I'll probably not sell this one as I have a lot of memories of Dad in this pub."
De Fraga went on to buy out his partners, as well as his father, to consolidate the De Fraga Group and become the sole owner. "If I stuff this up now, I only have myself to blame," he says.