The Lobby is one of Canberra’s most iconic buildings, although on a lesser scale than the surrounding national institutions such the two Parliament Houses and the beautiful National Library of Australia. Located on national land, the National Capital Authority has responsibility for the building. Situated on King George Terrace, almost in the centre of the Parliamentary Triangle and overlooking the National Rose Garden, it is a building full of memories. Like many readers, I have been to weddings, book launches, poetry readings and memorable family get-togethers in the space. The Lobby was a restaurant and function centre for almost 50 years and was the choice of meeting place of political lobbyists with expense accounts, politicians, and senior Government officials, including the odd spook.
After finally closing its doors at the beginning of the year, the future of the Lobby remains uncertain. The Lobby stopped functioning as an a la carte restaurant some years ago, although the elegant, glass-walled building had been a popular venue for weddings and functions. The attached Pork Barrel café and bakery in the kiosk part of the building attracted a day-time crowd and was well-patronised but ceased trading at the same time as The Lobby. The National Capital Authority was approached for an update about the future of the building but did not provide any information about possible future uses. I have seen references to the building being heritage-listed and if this is the case, the building should remain intact, but with an indeterminate function. The sale of all fixtures and fittings early this year means an easy transition was limited for any potential entrepreneurial local restauranteur willing to try something a bit different. Perhaps someone else, even from interstate, cashed-up from another enterprise, may tackle the space and create something that will become a go-to destination. Parking had been cited as a possible problem for the venue, but with paid parking in the Parliamentary Triangle, and the National Library car park barely 200 metres away, parking is mostly readily available. So unless the National Capital Authority can negotiate a restaurant lease, consideration should be given to repurposing the building.
One idea discussed with interested parties could provide a possible solution to a long-standing issue. The ACT does not have a venue that could be described as a centre for indigenous culture for the traditional custodians and owners of the land. As The Lobby is on traditional land, surely there is room for at least a discussion that the land is returned to the traditional owners for cultural purposes. Its function could be a central repository for any collections of artefacts, or it could be easily converted into an art gallery for indigenous art, with a strong emphasis on local indigenous artists. The building is flooded with natural light and with a flexible track lighting system and moveable screens, the existing building could provide an excellent gallery space.
For the time being, The Lobby sadly stands empty and just a little overgrown. At least it is not boarded up, nor the windows covered in newspaper. As we have no indication of the future of the building, it is interesting to pause and reflect on The Lobby’s past. Until 1988, it was the closest restaurant to the Australian Parliament, other than the House dining room. After Parliament moving up the hill in 1988, it inevitably became less frequented as it was no longer a quick dash across King George Terrace, and as new lobbyists and MPs came into Canberra perhaps found other restaurants more to their liking.
The building was opened on 1 July 1968 by the then Federal Treasurer, a certain Mr McMahon. At the time, the Canberra Times commented it was ‘no mere hash house for coach parties’. It was anticipated it ‘would provide a sophisticated menu six nights a week’ and the décor had been ‘done by Lady (Marion) Hall Best’, interior decorator to the then rich and famous. The name was very appropriate as the restaurant was intended for lobbyists with expense accounts. The main diners were the politicians and bureaucrats who were being lobbied, although management did attempt to attract a local crowd when Parliament was not sitting. Sunday luncheons were offered as ‘a traditional Sunday dinner with ‘a grand 3-course luncheon of roast turkey or pork $3 (children $1-75), and Devonshire Tea served on Sunday afternoon’. By the end of 1969, there was a Dinner Dance each Friday night with music provided by the “Lobby Trio”.
Apparently, service got off to a roaring start, and the owners were reputed to have covered all expenses within the first six weeks. A refreshment kiosk soon opened to meet the needs of tourists who were more interested in a pie and sauce. At the time of opening, there was little in the way of fine dining competition with most restaurants contained in dining rooms in motels, although I hope this statement unleashes a flurry of comments and memories of other restaurants of the era.
So even though the future of The Lobby is still unknown, I wonder what personal views readers have about its future?
Photos by Maryann Mussared