It's three days before Bruce Keebaugh opens The Commons, and the St Kilda Road site is abuzz. Hand sanitiser is installed in custom-made birdbox dispensers along the flower-lined entryway. Mint is planted in a kitchen garden, ready for summer's mojitos. Green-and-white striped umbrellas are flexed over beer garden tables. The dappled shade of a huge oak plays over the puppy corral and its kennels.
"This is a place for Melbourne to be Melbourne again," says the Big Group catering supremo. The last week of October would normally see Keebaugh at Flemington Racecourse, putting final touches to Birdcage eventscapes. This year, of course, is different. Instead, he's marshalled the Big Group's creative energy and its JobKeepered staff to transform the huge site, previously Belgian Beer Cafe, on the corner of Moubray Street.
"We needed this as a project," he says. "I needed it for my own sanity and our team needed it for their mental health. And now we need it to get Melbourne back again."
The 1000-square-metre site is licensed for 1500 people. Initial COVID-safe limits mean it can host just 50 diners in the garden and 10 in each of two indoor rooms, all booked for two-hour sittings. As restrictions ease, patron numbers will slowly rise.
"We understand COVID safety," says Keebaugh. "We have a COVID concierge in a floral suit, we have three separate toilet areas for each dining zone, we know how to do protocols and procedures."
Beyond that, it's all about fun. "It's happy and joyful," says Keebaugh. "People are desperate to see their mates, share a drink, sit at a table and have some service. These are natural human things and we are going to provide them by the buckletload."
He's not quite reconciled to losing the spring racing carnival, though. "I have an old-school bookie coming with his bag for Cup, Derby, Oaks and Stakes days and I'll have TV screens. We hope people will come dressed for racing, too – we don't want to lose that part of who we are. It's an important part of Melbourne."
And what about that other important part of Melbourne's character – the weather? "If it rains, we just put up umbrellas and play Singing in the Rain," says Keebaugh. "We are ready to get on with it."
For more al fresco restaurant openings see 16 exciting places to eat al fresco in Melbourne.