Late on Christmas Eve 1974, much of Darwin’s population was facing up to Cyclone Tracy, a storm that tore through the city, ensuring it would never look the same again.
Many fled the cyclone and never returned, but for those who did, they needed a replacement for the pubs destroyed by Tracy. Thankfully, someone came up with the bright idea of putting a container in the centre of the city from which to sell beer.
Among the people there at the time was filmmaker Stephen Johnson. Having witnessed the popularity of the container bar, he realised its ability to bring people together and, more than four decades later, he and partner Sabrina Santucci brought the concept to the heart of Melbourne.
Taking over the site of a carpark, Whitehart Bar opened in early 2017, constructed from old container bars and striking steel beams. Despite its industrial materials, the fern-lined walls, murals and lighting come together to create a two-storey bar that manages to feel green and alive. Thus, despite being located in the middle of the city, Whitehart feels more like an escape from the concrete jungle than a part of it.
The desire to keep things green is more than skin deep; it’s a principle that guides how the bar operates, whether that’s through working to limit their waste, focusing on seasonal produce or prioritising all things local on the drinks list. For the cocktail list, this means local produce influences the recipes; when it comes to wine, most are natural and local.
It’s also true when it comes to the beers, where there’s a dozen on tap and dozens more in bottles and cans in the fridges. Downstairs, six of the taps rotate frequently with the bar ordering small amounts to keep the beer fresh and the offering in a constant state of flux.
As for the choice of beers, the approach is one that balances keeping up with what’s popular in nerdier beer circles with remaining approachable. When it comes to tapping the more unusual beers – the sort that might intimidate the casual drinker – the bar backs its staff: they’re trained to know how to approach what they’re pouring as well as the story behind any given style or brewery. The underlying theory is that there’s a beer style out there for everyone – they maybe haven’t found it yet and just need the right person on the other side of the bar to give them the right taster.
There’s no kitchen at Whitehart, but that doesn’t mean food choice is limited: the bar can help you out with snacks, while food trucks rotate each week and the neighbouring +39 Pizzeria is on hand to sate empty stomachs at other times.
Given its close proximity to myriad city office buildings, since launching, the bar has proven popular with afterwork and pre-dinner crowds. At other times, whether over the weekend or later at night, the space fills with a more diverse mix, from students and local musicians to families with both children and pets in tow. Often, patrons are enticed by the regular rotation of DJs spinning funk, soul and house during the week before turning to music of a more experimental nature over the weekend.
It's an eclectic mix that, while it might be worlds apart from 1970s Darwin, suggests the simple idea that lies at the heart of the Whitehart story – bringing people together – is one that transcends time.