THE transformation of The Grand Hotel in Newcastle is underway with the recent completion of the first stage of renovations.
The hotel's basement-level bar, The Underground, opened last week after undergoing a complete makeover to revive the intimate space as a New York-style speakeasy bar.
Renovations began in February, gutting and remodelling the space with new flooring, furniture, custom-built booth seating and cosy, private nooks, while the original bar area has been restored and is filled with a growing range of craft spirits and a high-end whiskey collection that will be added to over time.
The bar, which is accessed via an alley from the sidewalk or a staircase from the front bar upstairs, was one of the biggest draw cards for John Elsley, who took ownership of the hotel in October 2021 alongside his brother Phil and licensee Lukas Thodas.
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"This space was a major part of the appeal with the hotel," Elsley told Weekender during a visit to The Underground.
"What drew us to the pub is what's here downstairs and the accommodation upstairs.
"We knew that with those two elements we could make it work without the poker machines, so that was pretty important, too."
Yes, the hotel is now a pokie-free zone. According to Elsley, the decision to remove gaming machines from the premises has drawn an enormous amount of community support.
"We got rid of the pokies and announced it on social media to let people know, and it blew up," he said.
"The feedback from the community since we took out the pokies has been great and I think they were detracting from the pub anyway.
"We have had a huge influx of people coming in because they knew we got rid of them, so it's been good to have that support."
The Underground bar will operate from Tuesday to Sunday from 5pm until late, with the venue's long-running weekly Tuesday night jazz sessions returning and presented by NIMA (Newcastle Improvised Music Association).
The bar will trade until 3am on Fridays and Saturdays, providing an alternative late-night experience to that of a nightclub or pub.
"We are going for a New York underground bar style, with whiskey and cocktails," he said.
"We play blues and keep it dimly lit. It's a really good vibe at night."
The drinks list includes the bar's signature cocktails - try the Mystify Me with Four Pillars bloody shiraz gin, lime juice, pomegranate syrup, pomegranate arils, fresh sage and orange bitters, or The Midas Touch with Glenfiddich whiskey, rosemary and lemonade shrub, honey syrup, lemon myrtle liqueur, lemon juice and a Bowmore whiskey float.
Classic cocktails are available by request or try one of their creations using Lyre's non-alcoholic range of spirits.
Tasting sets of gin, rum, whiskey, tequila and mezcal are also available along with an extensive list of wine showcasing produce from the Hunter Valley and beyond.
"We have a lot of local suppliers on the drink list and we have teamed up with Four Pillars as well who have put in a big selection," Elsley said.
"We have Earp Distilling Co behind the bar as well and some pretty high-end whiskey, too."
The food menu is designed for late-night snacking: antipasto plate with cured meats, fruit, cheese, spiced nuts and rosemary lavash; marinated olives; or a choice of four toasted paninis.
Taking ownership of The Grand Hotel is the latest project for the Elsley brothers who are Newcastle-born and own a string of venues around Newcastle and the Hunter including The Whistler, Babylon, Blind Monk and The Family Hotel in Maitland.
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