Home' In The City : In The City - Winter 2013 Contents The Canberra Times | In The City Magazine
Since the 1990s Garema Place has gone
through dramatic changes in the kind
of businesses and individuals that have
inhabited its space.
In the past few years it has witnessed
another shift. Has gone from an area
that projected an empty back ambience to a locality
where the tendrils of activity have crept back to establish
themselves in a new form.
A bank of restaurant-bars now opposes a bustling
cafe strip to serve up a mature slice of nightlife in the
The new Shorty's, at the former Milk and Honey
location, provides the nexus between the Bunda Street
hum and Garema Place venues such as Playground,
Honkytonks, King O'Malley's and Hippo bar.
There is vibrancy in the area. On a cool Canberra night
scores are eating and drinking outside as heat lamps
and gas burners fend off the chill. An unmistakably
inner city din has settled on the area.
But it hasn't always been like this.
In the past you've been more likely to see a tumble
weed roll through parts of Garema Place on a Friday
night than experience what is supposed to be the
beating heart of a city.
The place was empty. Pedestrian traffic was light.
Shops would open, struggle and then close. Many years
ago a retailer referred to it as the Bermuda Triangle due
to the amount of merchandise that disappeared from
stores bounding the area.
In the past decade or so there have been a couple of
gems that remained anchored in the area. They carried
Garema Place through the wax and wane of business
interest. Hippo bar is one that has kept shaking up the
cocktails for more than a decade, along with perennial
Irish pub King O'Malley's.
But for yearly slabs of time during those periods
Garema Place was a ghost town.
More recently though a tide of interest has met a
number of bars that opened facing the chess pit. The
warm clink of whisky glasses has been part of that
Honkytonks co-owners Tommy Hertel and Laurence
Kain have provided the impetus for a revival of the area.
They also recall the changes that the area has gone
through. Kain says a major rejuvenation of the area
about 20 years ago made a significant difference to the
vibe of Garema Place.
Back then it was a fairly gritty part of the capital.
Walking through Garema Place with a visible $20 bill in
your hand attracted significant attention from dubious
But there were never any menacing undertones to
the general scene. It was more a city planner's failed
promise that slipped into that dark space between the
idea of what it was meant to become and the lived
After the revamp the area experienced a period
of growth as the cafe culture moved in. Della Piazza,
Valentino's, Redback cafe, Mama Trattoria's and Rincon
Latino created a pleasant cafe strip that flowed from
Gus' Cafe on Bunda Street deep into Garema Place.
That period lasted for about a decade until several
cafe's closed. The result crippled the al fresco spectacle
that had built up.
"It went through a real quiet phase where a lot
of businesses closed down and there wasn't much
going on,'' Hertel says. "It almost became more of a
thoroughfare than a destination.''
Despite the lack of business activity for that period
the location always had a lot of pedestrian traffic.
But it wasn't until Honkytonks moved in that interest
"I think naturally Garema Place is the heart of the city.
When it is bustling there is a really nice town square
feeling. That's what attracted me to the area and to this
particular location," Hertel says.
"If you think about all the other cities in Australia
there is no town square feeling in any of those cities that
compares to what we have here. This is a real European
square like you would find in Rome or Paris. So I think
given the right attention this would be amazing, and it
is starting to happen."
Shorty's co-owner Frank Condi echoes that view. He
says it is a fantastic space that could be made into a
vibrant little European-style piazza.
At the moment he considers it to be underused but
thinks it should become a hub of day and night activity
with a variety of cafes, bars and little restaurants.
"I'd love to see it really evolve,'' Condi says. "It's an
amazing place when the sun hits that area.''
Meanwhile the new venues have put the argument
for a less juvenile approach to drinking in town. The
infamous 10 drinks for $10 deals or hyper cheap jugs to
maximise paralytic drunkenness are points of difference
they've decided to avoid.
"The businesses that are opening here are offering
something to a bit more of a grown-up market,'' Kain
says. "We're really trying to create a nice environment
for people to have something nice to eat and drink and
talk to their friends. It's not about getting drunk."
Since Honkytonks opened a couple of years ago
Playground and Shorty's have come in while a fresh
look for Hippo bar is underway.
"It's been fantastic,'' Hertel says. "If you walk through
here on a Friday evening it's cranking. I think naturally
it will evolve into the town square that Canberra has
always wanted and should have. It's an incredible spot.''
For Playground co-owner Antony Arena the
importance of Garema Place can't be understated. For
him it's intimately connected with Canberra's identity
He says a lot of visitors that he would take out would
comment that something was like Sydney or Melbourne.
But these new venues, in their current time and place,
created an opportunity. A chance to build something
that is unmistakenly Canberra in its look and feel.
"Garema Place is essential in defining [Canberra's]
identity,'' Arena says.
No longer a deserted thoroughfare, Garema Place has
experienced a revival in recent years and is fast becoming
a thriving, bustling destination. MARK SAWA writes
my family, my friends, my pupils
City Walk Centre, Civic
02 6247 8400
Natasha, mum and teacher
Smile care by Dr Tony Appleton
Gentle and experienced care
7am to 7pm by arrangement
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