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parlour

Canberra’s beloved Parlour past and present

Emma Macdonald

Six years ago this month, Bria Sydney was at home dealing with the fog of motherhood due to six-month-old Oliver and two-year-old Toby.

But an otherwise ordinary day was interrupted by her husband Ben, who rang her in the early afternoon to say their business, and one of Canberra’s hippest venues, Parlour Wine Room, appeared to be on fire. Ten minutes later he called back with the words “It’s gone”.

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Bria Sydney in her Parlour, mark two. Image: Martin Ollman.

It was 23 June, 2011 and the blaze that devastated the heritage-listed buildings of the NewActon Pavilion shocked the city. Few Canberrans living here at the time won’t remember seeing footage of the ominous plumes of smoke billowing from the terracotta roof tiles—nor the way social media propelled the story into everyone’s newsfeed. Meanwhile, the loss of such an iconic venue—which had, in just three years, helped spearhead Canberra’s cool capital credentials—seemed to evoke intense emotion and distress.

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The original Parlour. Image supplied.

Looking back now, Bria remains amazed—and incredibly grateful—that no one was injured.

“I was told that a group of builders who were finishing up working on the NewActon Precinct site jumped a metal fence with fire extinguishers in hand. They helped evacuate our patrons and staff.”

“When I stop to think about it, it could have been disastrous…” Bria says.

Her beloved Parlour was, however, destroyed.

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After the fire. Image supplied.

“They allowed us to come and look the next day. The roof had caved in, everything was black and sodden from the water they used to put the fire out.”

It was a personal low-point for the Canberra hospitality wunderkind, who at just 22 started Knightsbridge Penthouse in Braddon and who was approached by the Efkarpidis family to bring some regal and cool elegance to a wine bar at the NewActon site.

Backed by her parents Ross and Lynne, and joined by her brother Trent and husband Ben McHugh, Bria made a leap of faith. She took over the derelict space, which has had various incarnations since it was erected in the 1920s alongside some of Canberra’s most distinctive buildings including Old Parliament House and the Hyatt.

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Image: Supplied

After life as a Commonwealth employee hostel, where staff who were building Canberra were billeted and (in which Parlour was the formal dining room) and housing the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission in the 1980s, the building had fallen into disrepair. When she and Ben looked at the site in 2006 before committing to transforming it, they saw shattered windows, graffiti, holes in the floor and the detritus of squatters past.

“We knew it would be perfect then and there,” she says laughing.

And they set about creating a luxurious, salon-style lounge room, with open fire, long wooden bar, eclectic upholstered chairs and sofas, and a proud peacock motif. An extensive wine collection, cocktails list and a modern tapas menu made it the place to be.

In the immediate aftermath of the fire, the question on everyone’s lips was whether Parlour would return.

In those first few weeks Bria wasn’t sure.

“It had taken almost two years to create. It was everything we wanted it to be, and I wasn’t sure we could recreate it.”

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The new Parlour proudly bears singe marks of the fire. Image: Martin Ollman.

Ironically, as Bria avoids social media in all forms, it was the social media outpouring of affection for the place that clinched the deal.

“My media manager ended up showing me all the commentary about it and I realised how much genuine affection there was for the place. So we decided we would start over.”

In November 2013, over two years after the fire, Parlour reopened its doors. Unlike its previous layout, a main door had been added as part of a change to the pavilion’s accessibility. It meant the bar had to be moved from one wall to the centre of the room.

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The new Parlour with bar in the centre of the room. Image: Martin Ollman.

While there was jubilation that a favourite haunt had risen from the embers and been returned to the city, sticklers for the previous layout had a lot to say about the 2013 version. Bria was a little taken off guard by it given so much time and effort had gone into keeping true to the original aesthetic.

“I guess everyone is going to have an opinion. Some loved it, some didn’t. I personally love where the bar is.”

At the time of Parlour’s reopening, Canberra’s restaurant landscape had also changed considerably – the city’s cool credentials prompting a near revolution of new openings across NewActon, Braddon and Kingston.

“We came back into a very competitive market, places like Monster and A Baker, 86 in Braddon. And a bit after we opened Akiba was on the scene.”

“All of this has made us work harder, and it has been wonderful for Canberra, which deserves the reputation that it now has for its food and wine culture”.

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Image: Martin Ollman.

Meanwhile Bria has turned her full attention to Parlour, having sold Knightsbridge two months after opening the new Parlour, and selling her other café, Braddon’s Elk and Pea at the end of last year.

“This place is so special to me. I feel really settled here and I am so proud of it and our wonderful staff.”

This month she will not spend too long pondering the destruction and hardship of the fire—instead relishing the celebrations of Parlour’s tenth anniversary in June 2018.

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Emma Macdonald

Emma Macdonald has been writing about Canberra and its people for more than 20 years, winning numerous awards for her journalism - including a Walkley or two - along the way. Canberra born and bred, she’s fiercely loyal to the city, tribally inner-north, and relieved the rest of the country is finally recognising Canberra’s cool and creative credentials. More about the Author

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