At the top of Bourke Street, Madame Brussels is a delightful rooftop bar, named after one of the most salacious characters in Melbourne's history. In the 1880s and 1890s, Madame Brussels was an audacious and entrepreneurial woman who owned several infamous brothels in the city. Today Miss Pearls is bringing back the cheeky spirit of the Madame (metaphorically!) at this quirky and charming bar. I recently interviewed her to find out more about Madame Brussels and Melbourne's colourful past..
Madame Brussels derives its name from a very colourful character of Melbourne's past. Why was the bar named after her?
There are two business owners of Madame Brussels, Vernon Chalker and Michael Anderson. Vernon is a very colourful Melbourne man who has been running bars for over ten years. He came up with the name. He googled 'Marvellous Melbourne' (1850s-1890s) and this woman appeared, Madame Brussels, who owned brothels, was a single mother, was wealthy, and she was actually really naughty! She was very much in with the good guys and the bad guys. There were tunnels leading from Parliament to her brothels. She was the first woman in Australia to have a private phone - and Parliament gave it to her! She named herself Madame Brussels because her nipples were so large that she called them Brussels sprouts. So that is Madame Brussels and Vernon came up with the name!
Michael Anderson used to be an opera set designer and he is also an interior architect and lecturer. He is extremely eccentric, an absolute genius, and he came up with the concept of Madame Brussels/Wisteria Lane/Mad Hatter's Tea Party. I think he stole most of the furniture from his mother! The concept fits in with the 1850s but also the 1950s and, of course, the present day. It was like a blank canvas - Madame Brussels - go crazy! I think the by-line was 'every day is a garden party' whether outside or inside. So that is how the design feature came about.
Interior of Madame Brussels (pic credit: www.metro.co.uk)
How does Miss Pearls fit in with Madame Brussels - the bar and the woman?
My input is really about the personality. So I brought the Madame back as Miss Pearls, representing the servicing so to speak - although with liquor not sex! The naughtiness is there in the type of drinks, the staff uniform with the little tennis outfits, the language created in the menu which is a little bit naughty but does not cross the line. It is flirtatious, as a madame would be. All of the team soak up the era of Madame Brussels in the way they talk, dress, walk and produce the drinks. There is a grandness in it, but it is a silly grandness. It is almost like taking the piss out of things with Marvellous Melbourne. We are all having a gay old time.
Miss Pearls on the terrace of Madame Brussels (pic: my own)
How was the location at 59-63 Bourke Street discovered?
There is a little story behind that! Vernon and Michael were looking for a place to live. They are city-dwellers and were after a terrace. This was going to be their home but then they thought, "hold on a minute, this is a fantastic opportunity to actually make a beautiful bar." Then they called me saying, "now we just need a madame!" And I was like "OK!"
Do you know about the history of the building?
We are just across the road from where Madame Brussels' brothels were. This was not actually a brothel, as a lot of people think, which can be kind of fun. The back part of the building was built in the 1850s but the front was built in the 1970s. It was an optometrist where they made lenses so it was a really weird, ugly, office building. If you have a look around, that still exists, but Michael has cleverly disguised it with beauty. I think everyone should take a leaf out of his book. You don't have to 'smash and crash', but reinvent.
Exterior of Madame Brussels, on the rooftop of 59-63 Bourke Street (pic: my own)
Do you have a favourite building or space in the city of Melbourne?
I love the Glass Atrium at Federation Square. I love parts of Federation Square, has anyone ever said that before? It is simply mind-blowing that someone has thought of that design and pulled it off. It is just so beautiful. And I also love Chapter House. There is a mystique about it. It is just so old and so many things have passed through there. It even smells different from the rest of the city. I just love going in there.
Glass Atrium at Federation Square (pic credit: www.aila.org.au) Interior of Chapter House, Flinders Lane (pic credit: www.peterrowland.com.au)
Is there any building or space in Melbourne that you dislike?
I'm not too fond of Docklands. I guess it is about development and 'greening it up' but at the moment it is too new for me. I would like to see more heart and soul in it. And it is windy!
If you did not live in Melbourne where in the world would you be?
The south of France. I just got back from there last night. I used to live there so I go back every winter - I miss it already!
Describe your Melbourne in a couple of words:
Melbourne to me is sexy, hip and fresh.
Melbourne has such a fascinating history and it is fabulous to see such a colourful character from the past being invoked in a modern and fun context. What do you think of the concept behind Madame Brussels?
Click here to read my interview with Guy Grossi of the Grossi Florentino Restaurant
Click here to visit the official website of Madame Brussels
Many thanks to Miss Pearls for agreeing to my interview.
Madame Brussels Website: www.madamebrussels.com
Money, Lawrence, 'The art of being hip and hard to find,' The Age (March 3, 2010)
Robinson, LM, Madame Brussels: This Moral Pandemonium (2009)