12 March 2024

The 6 top Canberra venues that should never have died

| James Coleman
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Capital Pancakes. Those were the days. Photo: Region Media.

In the wake of KFC Tuggeranong erupting into a ball of greasy fire last October, our hungry hearts were drawn to what other establishments we Canberrans might be missing out on.

We asked (via a post on The Canberra Page), and were met with a barrage of nostalgia. But at least six names kept coming up in the comments, so we decided to do some digging to find out what went wrong.

For instance, why you can’t get a cold one at the Cotter anymore?

1. Cotter Pub

Nowadays when you’ve unpacked the picnic hamper at the Cotter only to realise the drinks are still sitting at home on the bench, there’s nothing you can do. But it wasn’t always thus. Just past the river crossing near the Cotter Dam used to be the Cotter Pub.

It was built in 1971 on the top of an old kiosk (famous for its ice cream), and quickly earned a reputation for its enormous stone fireplace and popularity among bikies, fresh back from joy rides through the Brindabellas.

Then the 2003 bushfires came through and destroyed it. It’s never been rebuilt. But should it be?

Nightclub

Heaven was known for its gay and lesbian-friendly edge. Photo: SolStock, iStock.

2. Heaven

This was a big venue on the Civic nightclubbing scene in the late 1990s and early 2000s, managed by Sylvie Stern, a long-time presenter on radio show 2XX, arts advocate and volunteer dog-walker for Domestic Animal Services.

Australian writer, and Heaven regular, Nigel Featherstone described it as “an institution”.

“In one sense it was just another nightclub, a gay and lesbian nightclub sure, but really it was nothing more than a big black box with a DJ booth and mirror-ball,” he wrote in 2015.

“Every so often effort would be put into the decorations: some sort of material – white or red – draped from the ceiling as if a wedding might take place. But nightclubs aren’t about decoration. They’re about the music, and the dancing, and the people …”

Shopping bag

Impact Records was open from 1979 to 2004 in Civic. Photo: The Rockbrat Blog.

3. Impact Records

Located where Civic McDonald’s is now, this was like the Spotify of Canberra between the years of 1979 and 2004. But with added branded T-shirts, comic books and trading cards, and local bands regularly playing live in-store too.

The Rockbrat Blog recalls that in the mid ’80s “Canberra had a reputation as the death metal capital of Australia”, and Impact was the “gathering place for rock folk” to rifle through gig guides, import fanzines, and “tonnes and tonnes of LP records”.

“Impact Records stocked a huge range of imported metal albums, even stuff that was not seen in Sydney’s Utopia. Yet it was not just metal, their range was diverse and massive … They used to occasionally have great sales too, with much of the stock dragged outside on tables.”

The relentless march of technology killed Impact, and it moved to Potts Point in Sydney under the new name of Phoenix Music from 2007 to 2013. But with vinyl making somewhat of a retro comeback, if only it had hung on a little longer.

(However, you can still live out the glory days with this Impact Records T-shirt, for sale on RedBubble).

The closed sign on the doors of Capital Pancakes in Civic.

The closed sign on the doors of Capital Pancakes in Civic. Photo: Region.

4. Pancake Parlour

This Australian family-owned pancake restaurant chain was brought to near the Civic bus interchange in 1984 by Philip Barton, a chef fresh from running another Pancake Parlour in Melbourne. A key feature was its chess table (sold in 2021 for $2500).

In 2018, Philip ended the business’s association with the franchise and it became ‘Capital Pancakes’, with his two sons Jefferson and Luca in charge. However, it fell victim to COVID social-distancing requirements and the final customers were served on 14 May 2020.

At the time, Philip told Region lease negotiations had fallen flat and the limit of 10 customers at a time made it impossible to continue.

“The shutdown and follow-up restriction [of 10 customers] have obviously hit restaurant confidence and income hard,” he said.

“Without income, we’ve spent the last few months going quickly backwards. Overheads don’t stop.”

He promised Capital Pancakes was “down but not out”, but it’s yet to return.

The Phoenix, Civic. Photo: The Phoenix, Facebook.

5. The Phoenix

Describing itself as “Canberra’s best pub and original live-music venue”, it’s little wonder this is missed.

But this particular Phoenix struggled to rise from the ashes following a fire that ravaged the Sydney Building in February 2014. Not only was there further rain damage from a heavy fall in the days that followed, the venue was left out-of-pocket and waiting on insurance money.

“We have been repeatedly advised that [the claim] would clear by this week, but as it has not we unfortunately have to shut until it does,” a post to its Facebook page on 25 February 2019 read.

“We are not giving up and hope to inform you of our reopening soon.”

A GoFundMe page raised $50,000 in a matter of weeks, but it wasn’t enough to overcome “another quarter of licencing and insurance fees”.

It’s yet to reopen.

Private Bin, Canberra. Photo: Private Bin Reunion, Facebook.

6. Private Bin

The Private Bin opened in the Sydney Building 1973, first as an a la carte restaurant, then a tavern and finally a full-on nightclub (with the more sedate ‘Waffles Piano Bar’ next door).

An exhibition listing from the Canberra Museum and Gallery (CMAG) says “its dark corners, sticky floors and often under-age patrons were fabled throughout the city”.

“The club … became the place to go for the next 25 years, variously described as ‘glorious’, ‘seedy’, ‘infamous’ and, of course ‘dirty’. At its peak it averaged over 20,000 people a week. As a former DJ recalled: ‘People sneaking in … sex in the booths … but as long as you came there and drank, everything was overlooked’.”

The Private Bin closed in 1999 to become a fancy new venue called ICBM, which in turn closed in early 2014, following hardship after the same Sydney Building fire that spelt disaster for The Phoenix.

The ‘Private Bin’ neon sign that hung above the entrance was rescued by an employee of signwriting company Empire Signs and is living out its retirement in a man cave in Royalla.

Other honourable mentions

  • Canberra Dragway
  • Eldorados
  • Pandora’s
  • Revolving restaurant at Black Mountain Tower
  • Sizzlers
  • Terrace Bar
  • Woodstock
  • KFC Tuggeranong (or have we mentioned that already?)

Which Canberra venue do you miss?

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I remember Zanzibar on Bellona Street Phillip. The psychopathic bouncers bring back the most vivid memories. They were particularly adept at throwing people down the stairs! Kimbo’s and Honey’s were on Townshend Street.

There were a couple of discos at the end of Colbee Court where a dancing studio now stands. They were particularly wild and we spent some long nights there back in the 80s. It was an establishment of last resorts! The owners used to water down the drinks and we had to be particularly drunk when we got there to enjoy ourselves. There was even a shooting out the front one night that put it in the news for a couple of days. I had to swear to my mother that I would never go there again!

How about the Blind Beggars in Belconnen?

As a kid was a huge fan of going to sizzler in the hyper-d (near the blue arches).

Occasionally would hit up hollys inside kmart for a burger in a racecar, or fish in a boat.

There was also a great noddle joint in garma place behind Gus’ place.

The Dolly’s food van in the carpark across from the old Worker’s Club. A definite pit stop on the way back home at college for a kransky on a roll with bacon and onions to help absorb the 10 or 12 beers consumed at the Workies or other such establishments. They place to be at about 2am on a Saturday or Sunday morning to enjoy the repartee of John and Gordo “Dolly” and to get them to flash their AFP badges.

robotcitizen8:37 am 16 Mar 24

re: “Heaven”, the timeline in the notes are a lil bit off. I DJd there 1994-2000. I recall it closed in 2001. I recall the peak buzz time there was the mid-90s; biggest crowds at our alterative-music club nights were 1995-96. I recall it became Heaven during 1993, changed name from “the Firehouse”.
Sylvie was the power engine of the venue for most of the time. I recall the first manager was a lady with short blonde hair, maybe named “Lyn”? She came to our first Canberra Clan Analogue meeting in 1993, to check out the budding young local electronic music makers
I recall first going to Heaven when I started DJing there in 1994 – the alternative music Thursday nights. Sylvie was the manager then. I DJd all the way through to late 2000 [2-3 nights per month – indie, electronica, goth & industrial & Retro nights] a series of events called Petrol, Parklife, Oblivion, Millenium and NEXUS which all lasted about 1-2 years each, usually once a month.
I sadly had to retire ‘cos I had a new job which required a working brain on Fridays.
I recall Heaven didn’t last much longer after that.
I reckon it closed in 2001. Might even have been late 2000. I ran some electronic music club events in 2002 and Heaven would have been the choice for them. But it was gone so we did stuff at Rockape in Dickson and The Green Room in Phillip; which weren’t ideal venues for electronic music.
Anyhowz enjoyed the article – great trip down memory lane!
I also wish Impact and The Phoenix were still here.
Their closure left huge ‘holes’ in Canberra; were places that so many people would meet and maintain connections; nothing has replaced them.

robotcitizen8:31 am 16 Mar 24

re: “Heaven”, yes it was awesome. Regards the timeline I think the notes in the article are a lil bit off. I DJd there 1994-2000. I recall it closed in 2001. I recall the peak buzz time there was the mid-90s; the biggest crowds at our alterative-music nights were 1995-96. I recall it became Heaven during 1993, changed name from “the Firehouse”.
Sylvie was the power engine of the venue for most of the time. Though I recall she wasn’t the first manager. I recall it was a lady with short blonde hair, maybe named “Lyn”? She came to our first Canberra Clan Analogue meeting in 1993, to check out the budding young local electronic music makers – spawned music by Dark Network, EYE, B(if)tek, Jon Wicks, AYA, The E.L.F. … I recall the venue being referred to as “Heaven” then in 1993.
I don’t recall going to Heaven until I started DJing there in 1994/95 – the alternative music Thursday nights. I recall Sylvie was the manager then. I DJd all the way through to late 2000 [2-3 nights per month – indie, electronica, goth & industrial & Retro nights] a series of events called Petrol, Parklife, Oblivion, Millenium and NEXUS which all lasted about 1-2 years each, usually once a month. I sadly had to retire ‘cos I had a new job which required a working brain on Fridays.
I recall Heaven didn’t last much longer after that. I reckon it closed in 2001. Might even have been late 2000. I ran some electronic music club events in 2002 and Heaven would have been the choice for them. But it was gone so we did stuff at Rockape in Dickson and The Green Room in Phillip; which weren’t ideal venues for electronic music.
Enjoyed the article – great trip down memory lane!
I also wish Impact and The Phoenix were still here.
Their closure left huge ‘holes’ in Canberra; were places that so many people would meet and maintain connections; nothing has replaced them.

Karen Harmer7:08 pm 15 Mar 24

The Jamison Inn and then when that closed, off to Blind Beggars

Rebecca Sostarko9:58 am 15 Mar 24

La Grange Manuka

Heaven was a dark, and dank sh$thole, decore was comprised of the mixed bag folks out cooling eachother via atelier leather pants n titey whities, all together with Amal stick passed around, man it was awesome. Long live the indie.
PS, just came here to point out the demographic of the commenters. Dinosaurs. ❤️🙏🕺

HiddenDragon8:30 pm 14 Mar 24

Hill Station – for languid, lingering weekend lunches and absolutely matchless for atmosphere in the cooler months.

Belgroves – a small and sadly short-lived gem tucked away down towards (or in?) Endeavour House at Manuka. Notable in its day for staying open later than just about everywhere else in that part of town, so the perfect nightcap place for evenings that you wanted to go on forever.

Montezuma’s – another vote for the obviously well-loved eatery, which was particularly handy as a place to take interstate visitors with kids, who always seemed to be amused by the little flagpole on each table, with a flag which could be raised and lowered to indicate satisfaction or the need for service.

The Ottoman – let’s hope the just announced rebirth will prove to be every bit as special as its earlier incarnation.

My first thoughts were:
1) Alto, aka “Revolving restaurant at Black Mountain Tower” as it is listed above.
2) The Wig and Pen

Angela Mason10:25 am 14 Mar 24

Honey’s, Troubadour, Harry’s (phillip food van), Elbow Room

As we’re sharing restaurants, my favourite haunt in the late 70’s was Mintu’s Indian restaurant in Phillip (upstairs in Altree Court). Mintu was a real character and generously held private Christmas parties for his valued customers. He later bought Shalimar in Hobart Place CBD from Joseph Cotta – one of the great indian chefs (I have his published cookbook) – when Joseph moved to Noosa in the 80’s to open a Shalimah restaurant there. Mintu’s daughter later ran Shalimar in the city (there’s a Capital Pathology there now). Cotta returned and opened Geetanjarli in the Deakin Shops on Kent Street, which has since been demolished to make way for the Equinox centre.

Edit: wrong corner, I think – where Izumi now is?

Gregg Heldon9:04 am 14 Mar 24

I forgot to mention, going from “Big Tuggies” (The Erindale Viking Club) across to “Little Tuggies” (the Old Tuggeranong Aussie Rules Club) which is now a childcare facility.
No one started that walk until at least midnight.

Cafe Boom Boom, Narrabundah

Peter Graves9:17 am 14 Mar 24

From whence The Doug Anthony All Stars sprang.

Parakeet Cafe at the Ainslie Shops..,

The Heaven manager: the late Sylvia Stern. RIP

ChrisinTurner1:32 pm 13 Mar 24

The Post Office in the Canberra Centre. They wanted to stay.

As Kali points out above, Manuka had some classic eateries. El Rancho always had huge meals, and the best pizzas in town were had with chianti at Le Rendezvous (the Zombie pizza covered in whole chillies was only for the insane).

Manuka in the 90’s had some great venues: El Rancho, Legends Spanish Restaurant, Pool Palace, En Vogue……

Gregg Heldon7:51 am 13 Mar 24

Saw so many great touring bands at Royals in Weston.
Manuka Football Club.
Dollar a drink night at East’s Rugby club on pay day Thursdays and then onto Rudes in Manuka.
And all the touring bands that went through the QBN Leagues Club too.

dandelionjoy11:34 pm 12 Mar 24

There are so many…Bobby McGees, Montezumas, Ottoman, Lilotang, Barton Cafe, Pancake Parlour, Sammy’s Kitchen in Civic, Aubergine, Ginseng in Manuka, Madam Yip, Alto Tower restaurant…

So many great bands in their early days at the Pheonix. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds spring to mind, and local talent Hot Tub.

Would love to see a pub even licenced cafe (re)bulit at the Cotter! Montezuma ‘s upstairs in Philip was another ripper

Rafael Calcetines8:52 pm 12 Mar 24

Found this article last week. A good trip down memory lane.
The complete A-Z of Canberra night spots in the 1990s
https://zango.com.au/news/the-complete-a-z-of-canberra-night-spots-in-the-1990s/?fbclid=IwAR2HKsvtPnCri30IJ60GTbA9JCA4CmrOg9auiWi3BWZ_RC_BOJYEywuunOA

Geoff Spackman6:02 pm 12 Mar 24

Tralee Raceway. What a great night out watching those cars on the dirt track!!!, even better competing, I really miss Tralee.

Toucan Lane!!!!!!!!!

All fantastic places. The private bin became ICBM didn’t it? They used to have comedy there on Wednesday nights in the early 2000s. The cotter pub was awesome. Impact records were brilliant. We used to go to the Blue Beat Cafe in Kingston in the 90s. Great fun had by all

Capital Retro5:06 pm 12 Mar 24

Best Mexican food ever was at Taco Bills at Kingston in the 1980s and the best steaks at Minos Narrabundah shops..

This list isn’t complete without a mention of the South Pacific Rugby club. Downstairs where the City greenshed is now.

Impact Records weren’t at that spot for long. It used to be Youngs Department Store, then Grace Bros for a while. Impact only moved there in the 90s.

Impact Records used to be upstairs in the Boulevard, which has since been knocked down to be come an apartment building off City Walk near the Casino. I remember buying records there while I was still in High School – 1976-77.
McDonalds is on the other side of the city, and the old Youngs store on East Row. Are we all talking about the same place?

Did some sleuthing – Impact were certainly where Youngs used to be (the photo of the shopping bag is the evidence), so given the years mentioned in the article they must have moved there from the Boulevard in the late 70’s. It was in a hard-to-find place there at the rear of the Boulevard on the second level, near the stairs to the back of Electricity House on the western side.

The original Henry’s restaurant in Woden

Gary Samuels2:30 pm 12 Mar 24

Clean Living Clive’s – a live jazz and singalong bar in Woden in the 70s and 80s. Not sure when or why it actually closed.

Brett Norton2:00 pm 12 Mar 24

The Otterman – best restaurant in Canberra at the time.

Peter Strong1:54 pm 12 Mar 24

The Gypsy Bar was awesome and also sponsored the UC women’s soccer teams. They became known as ‘The Gypsies’.

Loved the Gypsy bar…..live music one side, DJ on the other….

Impact Records were so cool that Motörhead dropped in for visit during their 1991 Australian tour.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kOxzFwzMaek

Peter Graves12:14 pm 12 Mar 24

And “Bogart’s Nightclub ” ? I seem to remember that the very talented Charlie Russel (??) was on piano. It was in a Civic building housing the Canberra Club of the 1970s/80s (now a block of apartments.

But what happened to the Canberra Club? I’m aware that it struggled as an entity once membership was opened up from being a mens-only club, but… ? It and the London Grill used to be The places to go for a good steak.

Peter Graves11:58 am 13 Mar 24

Excellent question. “The Canberra Club” does have a listing, here – https://clubsact.com.au/club/canberra-club-2/.

BUT when you click on http://www.canberraclub.com.au, up comes “the Canberra Services Club”. Nothing at all to do with the “The Canberra Club”. Where “the Canberra Club” remains listed on the net, the telephone number is actually that for the Services Club (which was formerly in Manuka, until burnt out and never restored).

Unless you may want to go to the UK – there’s a Canberra Club in Blackburn:
https://www.facebook.com/thecanberraclub/events/

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