By Vivienne Pearson
Emma Thomson had no intention of opening a new restaurant. Already busy with two Miss Margarita venues (Byron and Broadbeach), Emma was not very enthusiastic about checking out the place for lease on the corner of Jonson and Marvell Streets in central Byron Bay.
Then the magic words were spoken: ‘Have you seen upstairs?’ Unused for nearly a decade, the upstairs area was not at its best, but Emma could already see a glimmer of potential when the landlord added: ‘You know you could take out the floor to make it a mezzanine.’
Cue a major renovation project. This is the ‘old bakery’ building, which started life as a house with a bakery out the back. In the early 1980s, local architect Christine Vadasz designed a row of retail spaces which today are occupied by Bayleaf, Leaf&Grain, and Mister Zimi as well as Emma’s new venture, The Mez Club.
The renovation has restored elements of the original building – the high conical sky-lit ceiling and a spiral staircase up past a central roughly hewn tree trunk. (The original design included live Bangalow Palms but, according to Christine, the architect, these had to be removed after they grew ‘too well’!).
The renovation has also brought new elements. That the space is so incredibly light, smooth and inviting is a testament to the creativity and hard work of the team. ‘Nothing is standard,’ says Emma, pointing out the backwards-sloping walls and the not-quite-octagon shape around the central well. Emma brought in a ship builder, a blacksmith, and a Spanish plasterer to help the team make the most of the unusual space.
Emma says she has been hugged by locals happy to see the building restored. As if on cue, Lisa Apostolides (from Byron Youth Theatre) looks up the staircase and says: ‘Thank you for transforming it back to a place of beauty!’. Christine, the architect, also approves. ‘I think it is terrific,’ she says by phone after having a look. ‘I’m so pleased the upstairs is rejoined to the downstairs.’
While you are also welcome to pop in to see the space for yourself, I haven’t forgotten that this is the food section of The Echo and The Mez Club is a restaurant rather than a design gallery!
The food is Mediterranean in its fullest sense. A map etched into the wall shows all the countries where inspiration is taken from – from Greece, through Turkey to the coastal parts of the Middle East and northern Africa, including Morocco.
The menu focuses on mezze – small dishes designed for sharing. One exception is the mousakka, which is served in half an eggplant. Lunch offers a range of pitta pockets, and shish kebab is cooked on a custom-built Cypriot rotisserie.
Cocktails are a speciality and there are daily happy hours (5–6pm, and 4–6pm on Fridays). The ‘Turkish Princess’ combines a little-known but locally made Turkish delight liqueur with prosecco. Slightly less Mediterranean (but who’s complaining!) is a focus on gin that harks back more to Emma’s origins as a Londoner than to the Mediterranean.
The Mez Club opened nearly two months ago and the upstairs launched only last week. Downstairs, bookings are not possible but tables can be arranged for pairs or groups.
Upstairs, or ‘The Souk’ as it has been dubbed, is the opposite – bookings are essential and this space is only available for groups of eight or more. The entire upstairs can be booked for larger groups (Christmas function anyone?).
Whether you choose upstairs or downstairs, go to The Mez Club for the architecture and design, as well as the cocktails and food.
The Mez Club: 85 Jonson Street, Byron Bay. Ph: 6685 5748.
You can see pictures of the original building, complete with palms, at http://www.vadaszarchitects.net.au/oldbakery.htm#.