Grand ambitions for South Yarra's Capitol Grand development

LK Property Group's Capitol Grand (left) being built in Melbourne's South Yarra.
LK Property Group's Capitol Grand (left) being built in Melbourne's South Yarra.  Photo: Supplied

When it comes to the Capitol Grand, superlatives are go. The $800 million residential apartment development on the old Capitol Bakery site on the corner of Chapel Street and Toorak Road (former home of the Fun Factory and the notorious Q Bar) employed movie star Charlize Theron to whisper the project's tag-line: Lead Me Into Temptation. It hits "hedonistic heights of luxury" and embodies "the pinnacle of architectural achievement".

Such elevated spruiking is par for the course with a project of this scale. At 50 storeys, Capitol Grand is almost twice the height of any building outside the CBD. It has $25 million penthouse apartments, a 24-hour concierge service, six-star hotel-style lobby, swimming pools, basement car wash for residents, billiards and private dining rooms, library and cinema room, gyms and open spaces decked out with cabana beds. It will also include three restaurants – an all-day diner, a fine-dining restaurant and a pan-Asian restaurant – and two late-night bars.

It's to be expected that an apartment building on steroids like this would attract a flashy/celebrity hospitality component. What's unexpected is that Larry Kestelman, the building's developer and a rich-list success story across a variety of businesses (communications, sport, fashion, technology) has decided to run the restaurants and bars himself. And not only is this his first hospitality rodeo, Kestelman, who founded the Dodo internet company and is the proud owner and commander of the National Basketball League, also intends his debut contribution to Melbourne's hospitality scene to be a game changer.

"There was always going to be a large food component but I never envisaged running the restaurants myself," he says. "I wanted to put the right people in to run them on a tenant-type basis.

"What swung me was the conversations I was having with restaurateurs. For me, this is a project of passion. I have a vision of the project as a living ecosystem for how successful people want to live. So while I knew these restaurateurs could open a restaurant and run it professionally, their vision was not my vision and no matter how passionate I was, for them it would be just another restaurant. I wanted to deliver something unique that Australia hadn't seen before."

So is this just the case of a guy who's eaten in a bunch of restaurants feeling like he could do it better?

An artist's impression of a dining area at Capitol Grand.
An artist's impression of a dining area at Capitol Grand. Photo: Supplied

"A lot of people get into hospitality because they get passionate about the idea of owning their own restaurant," says Kestelman. "It's a nice side effect but I have no interest in that. I've started and run a lot of different businesses in a lot of different industries and I know you don't do it just because it seems like a bit of fun.

"To say I'm cautious and scared is a fair assessment but because I've done this many times, I've got a rulebook now for what needs to happen to give it every chance of success. I realise for us it's a first venture but what I do is to surround myself with the right people who know what they're doing and have done it before."

Part of Kestelman's rulebook is bringing to a hospitality venture what many restaurants in Melbourne, most of which are chef-run, lack: business skills.

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"I don't for a second to pretend to know everything there is to know about restaurants," he says. "I'm good in business and I know what is required to run one. In some ways it's a plus for me to come into industries from the outside. If you're a chef passionate about food, the business part can be a distraction and then you're surprised by why the business is failing. People tend to rinse and repeat and do the same things over and over again whereas if you come in from the outside, you might get some things wrong but you also present the possibility of doing things differently."

With deep pockets and existing infrastructure, there's also the possibility of assembling and training a team well ahead of time.

The first component of the Capitol Grand restaurant rollout (an all-day diner with a French and Italian accented menu) is still six months away, but Kestelman already has some of the key players in place.

Executive chef Stephen Nairn (left) with Larry Kestelman.
Executive chef Stephen Nairn (left) with Larry Kestelman. Photo: Samara Clifford

Executive chef across all the venues is Stephen Nairn, a Scottish-born six-year Melbourne resident who's CV includes New York's Eleven Madison Park, Vue de Monde and Matilda. He's joined by hospitality manager Nikola Milivojevik and consultant Monica Brown, who's been tasked with "putting together a fantasy football league version" of the Melbourne hospitality scene and is already hinting at some major (though as yet unsigned) coups.

Nairn will start operating from a test kitchen on Toorak Road in a about a month. It will run as a pop-up restaurant and give him time to "define our focus, connect with the locals and build our core team".

"It's easy to say we're going to be doing this or that but we'll really have the time to refine our style and fully engage with our suppliers by the time the restaurants are ready to go," he says. "We look at it as a football team – we're moving into the big stadium but right now we're on the training pitch."

Kestelman never had any doubt that he would be able to get the food component right. He believes that Melbourne already delivers on that front. What he says is lacking – and what he hopes to change – is the expectation of service excellence.

"The bit that I'm passionate about and the main reason I'm doing this is the whole experience part of eating in Melbourne restaurants," he says. "What Australia hasn't done well – and there are some people who do it well but not many – is the experience, the smile, the feeling like you're coming home, that you're known. You can go to a restaurant in Australia 20 or 30 times and they still don't know your name or what you like to drink.

"In the US and Europe, that holistic experience is something that's ingrained in the culture and I hope that's the thing that we're going to change. We want people to walk away feeling like they've had an amazing experience, that they want to come back and when they do come back they'll be welcomed back like they belong, not as a number or a statistic for the business. A lot of that comes to getting the right people, people who can look you in the eye and people who smile. A smile changes everything and I can tell you now, there will be people fired for not smiling."

There's plenty more ambition where that came from at Capitol Grand. Kestelman, ever the confident and details-obsessed "benevolent dictator" of the project, believes that the fine-dining component of his offering "will be the best restaurant in Australia" that "will be known worldwide".

That claim arrives hot on the heels of similar ones made by the Chris Lucas-led team at the new multi-million dollar development 80 Collins, where Martin Benn and Vicki Wild are also aiming for a lavish, game-changing restaurant.

Ambition is in the air, it seems, and if these partnerships of big business acumen and restaurant creativity are successful, it could see Melbourne moving to a new phase in the evolution of its dining scene. Watch this (expensive) space.