Venturing out into the cold, dark night to catch up with friends can be a testing time, particularly if you can never think of a decent bar to meet in.
By decent, I mean one that offers the right degree of cosiness so you don’t have to sit there in coats and gloves all night; where ‘mood lighting’ is preferred to wrinkle-enhancing 400-watt downlights; where the drinks list does a decent line in good local wines and quality cocktails; and elegant plates from a skilled chef replace bog-standard bar snacks.
The newest offering in Ainslie, just north of the city, ticks a lot of these boxes.
Upstairs from Edgar’s pub and the Mama Dough pizza place, a few steps from the acclaimed Pilot restaurant, and just around the corner from one of Canberra’s most-talked-about IGAs (that wall of cheese!), Wakefield’s Bar & Wine fits perfectly into Ainslie’s buzzing shopping and dining strip.
Wakefield’s is the latest offering from Frank Condi, a stalwart of Canberra’s hospitality scene, responsible for venues such as Academy, Suburban, Little Brooklyn, Shorty’s and Mr Wolf. He currently owns Wakefield’s and its neighbouring siblings Edgars, The Inn and Mama Dough. He’s also the name behind popular Manuka gathering spot Public Bar and Dining, which he’s planning to give a design make-over in the coming months.
Wakefield’s, Frank says, is an opportunity to “mix it up a bit”, with plans to host live music acts every Wednesday night for a crowd that wants to escape the hustle and bustle of the city to an eclectic neighbourhood venue.
“We’re looking to get as many local artists in as possible. That industry has been punished a lot during COVID, and there are not many areas that have a little bar where people can play,” he says.
“It’ll be ones and twos, jazz, blues, soul … like you’d see in New Orleans or New York. A cool little bar with an artist playing in the corner.”
In a nod to the venue’s colourful past, there will be other surprises too, Frank says.
“This old room in the 70s and 80s was a brothel. Then it became a pilates studio … it’s been so many things. We wanted to be a bit tongue in cheek and do things you might see happening overseas, like bring in a dancer or two.”
Wakefield’s, accessed by a side door and a couple of flights of stairs off Edgar Street, opened last Saturday (24 June) just opposite The Inn, a European bistro-style dining spot offering paddock-to-plate fare.
It’s launch night when I escape the chill outside, venture up the stairs and find that the place is humming. I fear I’ve not come dressed for the occasion but soon realise that the woman kitted out head to toe in feathers and sequins is one of the promised dancers, shimmying her way around the room as guests tuck into cocktails, including Wakefield’s delicious take on an Old Fashioned with Woodford Reserve bourbon, black walnut bitters and demerara syrup, and snacks such as delicate slices of fried bread topped with piperade, anchovies and garlic.
Wakefield’s head chef is Steven Jacomos, who has worked at the excellent Saint Crispin and Lupo in Collingwood and Fitzroy Town Hall Hotel. Frank says his new team member is a great fit for the business, particularly given there’s an open kitchen to provide a further touch of theatre for guests.
“Steven comes with a great skillset. He’s been all over the world. He and his wife and young family were looking to move to Canberra and it all worked out,” Frank says. “I like his manner, he is softly spoken but firm – not like one of those crazy chefs … you don’t need pans flying around in an open kitchen.”
Steven’s menu focuses on seasonal produce and features dishes such as lamb riblets, crumpets with smoked trout and bottarga, hand-rolled pasta and apple tarte Tatin. But Frank says the double cheeseburger with smoked cheddar on a brioche bun is the pick of the menu.
“It’s done with dry-aged mince, is really simple – just with a bit of hot mustard. It’s delicious.”
Though compact, Wakefield’s provides a good mix of seating options – spacious high tables that can accommodate groups, smaller tables for two or three on the periphery of the room, a couple of sofas and side tables. The aesthetic features flashes of timber, steel, leather and suede, as well as old-style lamps and scented candles dotted about. There’s a small bar to the rear of the room, its shelves filled to the brim with spirits, liqueurs and mixers, and a private dining room opposite.
The fit-out was done by local design firm Capezio Copeland, who put their mark on restaurants and bars, including XO in Narrabundah, The Duxton in O’Connor and EightySix in Braddon.
“You used to be able to open a bar, and everyone would come because good hospitality venues were limited in Canberra for a long time,” says Frank.
“Now it has evolved so much. There’s quality everywhere and punters know good food, good wine and good service. Making people welcome and comfortable is the secret to making it work. And that comes down to the lighting, the temperature, the music volume, the way the room flows … and, of course, the food, drinks, and staff. You have to offer the whole experience.”
As one who’s never been impressed by too-cool-for-school venues that think sitting on milk crates and drinking out of old jam jars in a wind tunnel is the way forward, these are comforting words.
Wakefield’s Bar & Wine at 1 Edgar Street, Ainslie, is open Wednesday to Saturday evenings from 5:30 pm until late.