Lamaro’s is not your typical gastro pub, despite its owners insisting it’s really just a simple affair. Lucy Robertson goes in search of a winning formula in a sector where so many miss the mark.
When Pam Lamaro bought a run-down pub in South Melbourne three years ago, her friends could probably be forgiven for their initial
concern—especially when they heard her go on to enthusiastically describe the bangers and mash-style food she planned on serving.
Sure, a couple of snags dripping in gravy make a heavenly match for a cold pot of Draught—and they’re arguably an Aussie institution in their own right—but there’s no shortage of pubs churning out the same formula.
There are, however, a few key points of difference that makes Lamoaro’s cosy South Melbourne pub far from formulaic.
For starters, she wanted to create an environment that wasn’t as ‘blokey’ as many hotel environments—as a single woman, she yearned for somewhere she could take her girlfriends for a glass of wine without having to shout over the football or wade through a pack of front-rowers to get to the bar.
After gutting the original cavernous premises, she divided it up into several smaller areas and redecorated in a creamy palette of browns, caramel, wood, marble and leather. Customers could still perch at the bar for a Stella on tap, but they now also had the choice of retiring to an elegant nook for a tasting plate and a glass of pinot, take dinner in the dining room or hire a deliciously appointed private area for a business meeting and a few cheeky canapés in the safety of a carefully Feng Shui-ed space.
It all sounds very nice, but what about those front-rowers and their bangers, you ask?
Lamaro says one thing she was very conscious of from the start was maintaining the ‘pub grub’ appeal for those customers.
“We are trying to provide relaxed comfort food such as sausages and pies for our corporate clients, as well as some more finessed dishes for our more foodie orientated customers,” she says. “We’re not trying to do fine dining—not for a minute.”
Nevertheless, Lamaro’s walks a fine line in the gastro pub genre.
Offerings like spiced calamari with hot mint salad, char-grilled quail, barramundi with Jerusalem artichokes and Szechuan duck with sticky sesame make it easy to forget you’re sitting in the back of a suburban hotel and not ensconced in the swanky window seat of an inner-city restaurant.
Even the more casual, booze-soaking bar menu reeks of dining sophistication, with everything from freshly shucked ponzu oysters to stuffed olives and duck liver parfait.
But even a visionary like Pam Lamaro can’t single-handedly keep the footballers at bay. She credits much of her success to her business partners—and a good working relationship.
And no wonder, when it’s Melbourne’s veritable foodie mafia—the Lambie family.
“Victoria Lambie came in as a consultant for a couple of months when I first started up. Michael Lambie was—and still is—the Executive chef at Taxi Dining Room, and it wasn’t long before they bought into the business,” Lamaro explains.
Today, Pam looks after the back-of-house management, Victoria takes care of the functions component, and Michael oversees the kitchen direction as executive chef. Lamaro’s also employs a head chef in Todd Adams to implement the pub’s foodie vision.
With food undoubtedly playing a leading role in the whole show, Pam says both chefs are active contributors to the direction of the
business—something that many pub chefs don’t have the luxury of doing.
“Michael has a wealth of experience in the food industry and oversees the kitchen here at Lamaro’s. Our talented head chef Todd also works closely with Michael to create an ever evolving menu and repertoire of dishes,” Lamaro explains.
Understanding their customers well enough to predict what they will feel like eating before they have even stepped foot in the restaurant is perhaps one of the secrets to Lamaro’s success. And, conversely, why many pub-based restaurants turn up their financial toes before their onion gravy has even started to cool.
At this point, Lamaro’s can’t be found in some of the more obvious industry bibles like The Age Good Food Guide or decorated in any number of chef’s hats, but Pam and Victoria are quick to point out it will never fall short in its ultimate goal of giving the customer what they want.
Still, despite a distinct lack of hats, this intimate little pub has no shortage of comparable industry awards or glowing critical reviews under its duck-stuffed belt.
Since opening, Lamaro’s has repeatedly featured in the Restaurant & Catering Awards for Excellence, taking out the top gong in the pubs and clubs category for the last two consecutive years.
And a host of critical reviews have described the restaurant as having everything from “the best pub grub in town” to an “awesome atmosphere” and food that is “comfortable and satisfying”.
Victoria Lambie says it’s everything they had aimed for from the start.
“Our food is consistent, produce-focused and very approachable, with simple, generous, honest flavours. We’re not trying to be too clever,” she says.
Lambie also credits their extensive wine list for part of the success of the business.
“We actually sell much more wine than beer,” she says, which seems like a shocking admission for the co-owner of a pub to make.
“Whole pallets of wine are delivered each week, while we usually only go through a few kegs of beer in that same timeframe.”
Surely this is some kind of weird interstate anomaly, as the delivery boys apparently suggest on a weekly basis, but Lambie claims it’s more a result of the pub’s unique atmosphere than any geographical issue.
“It’s just not a beer-swilling kind of place,” she persists as the shock starts to subside. “More mainstream pubs do well with their pints, parmigianas and trivia nights while we’re more into a glass of premium pinot and tasting plate. Of course you can still have a beer and a Lamaro’s burger, and plenty of our customers do, but we’ve developed quite a reputation for our wine list.”
This wine bar appeal has grown so much that Lamaro’s recently started holding wine appreciation dinners twice a month for connoisseurs—as well as the odd beer drinker wanting to upgrade to a new, high-class habit.
This wine-focused sideline works well for business, with the regular wine dinners taking over one of the larger spaces in the dining room or bar, or a smaller private function room for a more intimate crowd.
“Our two stunning private dining rooms are extremely popular,” Lambie says. “People will come in for a corporate event and then come back
a few months later for a birthday or engagement party—all our functions generate some fantastic ongoing business.”
And like all things Lamaro’s turns its hand to, those two private rooms sure look pretty slick.
The ‘wine room’ features a French oak table able to seat 20, a marble fireplace, opulent decorative Chinese lanterns, dark leather and a display wall of special reserve wines, while the ‘conservatory’ is a light-filled atrium for 18 guests that’s perfect for a lazy Sunday lunch or relaxed
dinner. Special function menus cater for two- or three-courses on a per-head basis from the main dining room selections, or offer a
customised list of canapés and cocktail nibbles.
It’s not surprising that, amidst all the duck and pinot and canapés, many report that Lamaro’s doesn’t really feel like a pub at all. Not that anybody seems to mind.
Pam agrees that it has been challenging at times to overcome the typical Aussie pub image and appeal to a quieter kind of customer.
“People are definitely shocked when they come through the doors and find it’s not a very ‘pub-like’
pub,” she laughs.
“As a result, most of our marketing efforts rely on word of mouth. I really do think when people stumble across something that’s
different and genuine, they tell their friends about it. We strive for that and we rely on it.”
Victoria adds that the business attracts a solid mix of old and new customers.
“Like every pub, we have a lovely bunch of regulars who are here daily or several times a week, which is wonderful. We also have a steady stream of people discovering us for the first time through friend recommendations or our growing reputation,” she says.
“We also enjoy a great number of corporates supporting our lunch trade. It certainly keeps our business alive and buzzing.”
It’s immediately obvious that Victoria and Pam share more than just a business—they both talk at great length about the need for passion
in carving out a life in the food industry.
“I am still so excited about my work, every single day,” Pam says. “The biggest mistake I see restaurateurs and hoteliers making is that they don’t have an overwhelming passion for what they do.
“We both love this world we have created. We treat it like our home—not just a business—and it feels great when customers come in and treat it like their home too.”
While the pair have been business partners pretty much right from the start of the Lamaro’s story, Lambie’s lengthy background in
consulting on several high-profile restaurants started her down the path to ownership.
“I have done many set-ups for other people, but I got to a place where I wanted to establish something of my own,” she says.
It’s obvious that Pam and Victoria have also managed to cash in on what is possibly one of the most valuable assets in business: a good partnership. Their friendship and commercial compatibility is evident in every corner of the premises—from its carefully considered menu to its Feng Shui-inspired space, to the pair’s hands-on approach to entertaining their clientele.
In this way, Lamaro’s is not just about the great food or its lack of footballers. It’s the personal care that’s gone into creating a certain extra comfort factor, the luxurious attention to detail usually reserved for a much more formal affair, the ease with which a new pinot is added to the wine list or a new pie is created in the kitchen …
“We’ve always had a clear vision for what we wanted to make in this venture, and I think we remind ourselves of that every day,” Pam says.
And these days, her friends don’t worry about a thing.