After 15 years of good times, one of Melbourne's most iconic rooftop bars, Madame Brussels, will serve its last drinks on July 25, with the downturn in city visitors to blame.
"It is due to COVID and the lack of people that are in the city," says co-owner and founding hostess Miss Pearls, aka Paula Scholes. "We are doing about 20 per cent of our usual business. Saturday is huge but that doesn't pay the rent. There's no JobKeeper and we have to pay back deferred rent and tax. It just doesn't add up."
When Madame Brussels opened in 2006 it was one of Melbourne's first hidden rooftop bars, accessible via an unlikely doorway and shuddering elevator at the top end of Bourke Street. Once inside, the space channelled 1950s garden parties with jugs of Pimms, staff in tennis uniforms and indoor astroturf. The roof terrace was a tipsy treetop playground, perhaps egged on by the spirit of its namesake brothel-owning Madame Brussels, a Melbourne identity in the late 19th century. The bar was founded by designer Michael Anderson, Miss Pearls and pioneering cocktail impresario Vernon Chalker, who died in May 2020.
"I'm teary right now," says Pearls. "This has been an iconic space, a jewel, a beautiful oasis that was truly magical. You'd walk in and feel like you were in a fantasy." Madame Brussels' events were famously debauched. "Part of the vibe was to be a little bit naughty but not fall off the edge," says Pearls. "We took you there. We let you have a look and then we pulled you back. That was part of the fun and playfulness of Madame Brussels. It was different and edgy."
Pearls will soon weave her magic at the Kelvin Club, a private club on nearby Melbourne Place. "It's a members' club but it's inclusive," she says. "We want to expand the base and have some good fun times and parties and create a new destination for people." Pearls is determined to do what she can to revivify Melbourne. "I love this city so much," she says. "It's breaking my heart. I'll do everything possible to help bring it back to life."
Co-owner Michael Anderson notes that their part of Melbourne is in deep doldrums. "There's a lot of coverage given to businesses snapping back and the Melbourne recovery but it is very patchy," he says. "There are areas that have staged a remarkable resurgence but there are other areas which are now ghost towns and the top end of Bourke Street is one of them."
Nevertheless, he is grateful for the time they have had. "It's been 15 years of terrific, rewarding fun for everyone concerned," he says. "I'm happy to have provided good times to so many people." He holds out a glimmer of hope that someone may take over the name and the space. "It's not necessarily all over red rover but it is curtains for us."
Level 3, 59-63 Bourke Street, Melbourne, 03 9662 2775, madamebrussels.com