Sipping by the sea

How Bathers Beach House in Fremantle earned Australia’s first beachfront license through patience, big-picture planning, and a reputation for playing by the rules. By Anna Christensen

It’s a sweltering 32°C on a Sunday afternoon in February and Bathers Beach House, a restaurant on the Fremantle Fishing Boat Harbour, is buzzing. A man wrapped in a towel rubs sunscreen into his back in between picking at a plate of fish and chips, while a tanned 20-something in a black bikini sprawls out on a deck chair, sipping a mojito. Meanwhile, attentive waitresses carry out trays of fruity cocktails to the shore.

I’m sitting under an umbrella with restaurateur Henry Liascos, who—together with partner Anthony Unmack—is responsible for securing Australia’s first ever-beachfront license. While beach dining is de rigeur in Europe—you’ll find hotspots studded all the way through the Greek Islands, the Italian and French Rivieras, and the Dalmatian coast—Australia’s famous beaches have remained an untapped hospitality resource.

This is partly due to Australia’s tricky licensing laws. Infamously hard to navigate, many a restaurateur has been defeated by lengthy applications and seemingly endless requirements. Logistically, it’s rough too. Unlike sheltered European beaches, our endless coastal stretches and gusty winds pose occupational hazards. (Maybe, just maybe, the reputation Aussies have as hard boozers comes into it too). So how did Liascos manage it?

No-nonsense and dry, Liascos is far from an excitable young upstart. Having grown up with parents who owned and operated several fish and chip shops across Adelaide, Liascos says his childhood smelled of deep fryers and fish. “The old man would fillet the fish, mum operated the counter,” he recalls. “We used to leave school, make some burgers in the shop for a couple of hours, and go home and watch the Bugs Bunny Show.” In the early ‘80s, he opened Stanley’s Seafood Restaurant with his brother. A few years later, he migrated to the west coast, where he remains today.

Now, Liascos is as much part of the Fremantle Fishing Boat Harbour landscape as seagulls and sandy feet. In 1996, he and Unmack took over the helm of Ciccerello’s, a fish and chip restaurant and century-old Freo icon, housed in an old wharf building atop the harbour waters (they’ve since opened a second Ciccerello’s in the coastal town of Mandurah, about an hour south of Perth). The duo also acquired the neighbouring Char Char Bull, a harbourside steak and seafood eatery, in 2012.

The following year, Liascos and Unmack turned their sights toward a third business on the Fremantle Fishing Boat Harbour, a dormant building—formerly McDonalds, followed by a string of fleeting businesses—poised right on Bathers Beach. The sprawling two-storey place seemed ripe with potential, particularly given the area’s recent facelift. In 2011, the council infused the Bathers Beach area with a “whack of dollars” in anticipation of the ISAF Sailing World Championships, explains Liascos.

Still, there was lots of work to do, including extensive renovations. When they unveiled the spot in late 2014, Perth locals gushed over the sleek yet beachy décor—think nautical stripes and chandeliers made from coconut chips—and floor-to-ceiling windows offering unobstructed views of the port.

“I was on a Greek island—Mykonos I think—with a gyros and beer. I rang Phil Cockman from Cranford Hospitality Consultants and said, ‘I’m on a Greek Island having a drink on the beach. Why the heck aren’t we doing that over here?”Henry Liascos, co-owner, Bathers Beach House

While applying for licensing with the Fremantle Council, Liascos flew the idea of extending the license to the beach. “The council said no chance.” Undeterred, he suggested renting out beach umbrellas and sporting equipment. “I wanted to create an interesting atmosphere at the beach. We needed to activate it, make it fun.” This time, the council was on board. Opening it to punters and the general public alike, the lounges activated the formerly sleepy stretch and made Bathers Beach House synonymous with family-friendly fun.

But Liascos’ original impulse kept humming away in the back of his mind. When he escaped the Perth winter for a European holiday, he could no longer ignore it. “I was on a Greek island—Mykonos I think—with a gyros and beer. I rang Phil Cockman from Cranford Hospitality Consultants and said ‘I’m on a Greek Island having a drink on the beach. Why the heck aren’t we doing that over here?’”

That’s when he got Cockman on the case, working to secure a license with an application to the WA Department of Racing, Gaming and Liquor and negotiations with the Fremantle Council. “Phil is an expert in the field, particularly writing public-interest assessments—it’s like getting a lawyer to represent you instead of representing yourself,” Liascos explains. “He’s versed in negotiating the curves and rivers of Racing, Gaming and Liquor, and made sure it made sense from an operational point of view and in the interest of the public.”

From left: Bathers Beach House co-owners Brenden Jones, Henry Liascos and Anthony Unmack

It sounds so easy. But while the application process took only six months and proved a smooth ride, Liascos had put in some two decades of groundwork. In establishing himself as a reliable hospitality player in Fremantle, he had earned the industry’s trust, and forged strong relationships along the way.

“It was easier because of our experience and the RGL’s knowledge of the way we run our business,” he says. “We follow the rules, we keep the area clean, we’re experienced in running a restaurant and the provision of alcohol to the general public. We like working with the RGL.” It helped, too, that the Fremantle Council is famously forward thinking and broad-minded.

Besides, Bathers Beach could have been designed for beachfront dining by the gods. Small, secluded and sheltered from the wind and swell, with two groins just 300m apart, it’s a safe spot for swimmers and easy to keep an eye on. Plus, with only 20 timber deckchairs—with a maximum capacity of 40—it makes for a civilised, laid-back vibe.

“You have to have the right space,” explains Liascos. “I used to own a café in Northcott and they wouldn’t have dreamed of saying yes to a beach license there because logistically it didn’t make sense. That’s an issue with a lot of beaches in Australia.”

Of course, tweaks were still needed. “In the beginning the staff were a bit uncomfortable taking orders from the beach. They were getting blistered feet and it was getting difficult for them to deliver food and drinks.” Liascos came up with a clever solution: a network of wooden pathways between the lounges. Each path has a plaque named after a member of staff, like a mini walk of fame.  “See, there’s Leah, Nicole…”

“Phil Cockman is an expert in the field … He’s versed in negotiating the curves and rivers of Racing, Gaming and Liquor, and made sure it made sense from an operational point of view and in the interest of  the public.”Henry Liascos, co-owner, Bathers Beach House

Clearly this is a place staff never want to leave. He downplays it: “Well, if they leave, I’ll change the names.” But there’s a palpable sense of camaraderie between Liascos and his employees. “Hey Nicole, your name’s covered up with sand!” he calls to a waitress whisking a tray of empty cocktails back from the shore.

Was there ever any concern about mixing alcohol with ocean water? “Look at that girl in her bikini,” he answers, pointing to a girl with soaked hair towelling off on her beach chair. “She’s got a glass of water there—maybe she had a pina colada before. She looks cool, clearly not intoxicated. It’s just about being sensible.”

The authorities have taken note. “Racing, Gaming and Liquor think it’s great,” he says. “They’ve popped down and have been really impressed.” Similarly, Fremantle Council have sung its praises for injecting a bit of European cool into the port city.

Then, of course, there are the customers. The team hired a publicist when beachfront dining launched in late 2016 and news quickly travelled, attracting attention from TV stations, radio programs, and print and social media.

Although he says erratic weather in its opening months was a bit of a dampener—literally—“business
has been good. People really like the idea”.

No doubt the novelty factor has been a drawcard for social media-savvy punters. Punch #bathersbeachhouse into the search bar of Instagram and you’ll find thousands of snaps of cocktails silhouetted against the shore and tanned legs propping up fruity drinks.

But Liascos doesn’t concern himself too much with that. His priority is making the space the best as it can be—not just the restaurant but the harbour as a whole. He points out various parts of Bathers Beach with pride: the Kidogo Arthouse, a rustic little gallery with Aboriginal art exhibitions, and some funky painted change rooms he bought with the council to give people a place to dust off their sandy feet. Soon, he says, the bold Sculptures by the Sea will spring up on the shore. And across the way next to Char Char Bulls, he is developing an exciting new piazza: “I could tell you more, but I’d have to kill you.”

That, it turns out, is his secret. A vision for the long haul, not some novelty concept to stimulate a quick injection of dollars. “You don’t just go in to sell food,” he says. “It’s all about those bits and pieces that pull it all together and make it a destination.”

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