Above the Brisbane River, Pony restaurant by Woods Bagot, features a rich and thoughtful interior designed with long lunches in mind.
If you have a hankering for chunks of juicy meat charred over a charcoal pit and sealed in the flames of an “asado” grill, Argentinian style, then Brisbane’s new Pony restaurant is going to have you shouting “yee-ha.” Meat, sometimes in the form of whole beasts, takes centre stage in the open kitchen, although it’s only one of the cast members in the drama that unfurls in the space. Woods Bagot’s Domenic Alvaro and Kori Todd have manipulated the awkward geometry and rambling scale of the existing 1980s building (formerly a McDonald’s) into a fluid series of alternately intimate and communal dining arenas. While many will immediately fall victim to the charms of the sensual textures and materiality of the overlay of cow hides, copper pipes, rough brick, leather trim and punched metal conforming to a theme and a clever branding game, it is the neat connectivity of diverse spaces and experiences that is the genius of the piece.
The given arena is perched one level above the Brisbane River in a big boys’ playground of restaurants and plazas that runs between swanky office towers. A boardwalk curves around the river not far from its base, and views to the water, Story Bridge and Kangaroo Point Cliffs can be enjoyed from its 180-degree wraparound balcony. A remnant and distinctive “big top” domed roof crowns a circular room at the riverside edge and connects to a semicircular street-side room at the rear via a straight, bridge-like entry area. Woods Bagot exploited the anthropology of connecting the three main spaces through a two-metre-wide ribbon of steel that snakes its way along the ceiling from front to back. Alvaro and Todd compare it to a cowboy’s lasso.
“The lasso is the big idea,” says Alvaro. “It’s the narrative of the whole piece. The ribbon was always going to make or break it.” This “big move” of winding steel ribbon was endorsed by the client, the Kyprianou family, who also managed the project. Their previous Pony fitouts (by other design firms) in Sydney’s Neutral Bay and The Rocks had honed their requirements and knowledge. Finding a good steel fabricator to create the piece was essential, and Woods Bagot resorted to the traditional skills of a blacksmith for this and other welded elements.
The organic lines of the iron gates of Antoni Gaudi’s Casa Milà were a constant inspiration for the luscious curves that make their way around the ceiling space and transform into the typography of the curly ends of the word “Pony” on menus and signage. But for all that, Woods Bagot insists the branding came only after the search for authenticity through the food and the culture of the place. “There’s nothing worse than looking ‘themed,’” says Alvaro, whose strategy embraced “relaxing a bit … and not attempting to ‘style’ everything.”
Working in close collaboration with chef Damian Heads, Woods Bagot set about re-creating the humane density of Barcelona bars and South American bodegónes. Sitting around the kitchen was an essential part of the experience, as was smelling the cooking food on arrival. And always “the roasting beast” was to be kept in sight. “The drama of the roasting spit is heightened by the seating we’ve placed all around the kitchen bar. It echoes the comfort of sitting at a kitchen table, and patrons can chat with the chefs,” says Todd.
The kitchen was split into two back-to-back galleys – one dealing with hot food and the other with cold (pastries and desserts). “Long galleys are inconvenient for chefs, because they can’t see all the way down the line,” Likewise, back-of-house needs are divided between a dry store area and the scullery and cleaning zone. The spectacle of interaction continues along the bar opposite, while other tables are sequestered within the curved confines of perforated metal partitions. Amenities aren’t excluded from the fun either, with exposed copper piping and mirrors hung on leather saddle straps. And in a deft move, the old domed ceiling is obscured by a layer of perforated steel that suffuses the light and renders it reminiscent of darkened horse stables rather than bright Queensland sunshine.