Rhubarb syrup, fig foam, rum raisin glaze and quince liqueur – it’s the stuff dessert-laced fantasies are made of. At Canvas Cocktail & Wine Bar, these ingredients are alchemised behind the bar to create memorably moreish cocktails. Emily Nunes opened Canvas in the Woolloongabba precinct in July 2010 with husband Marco and friends Bonnie Shearston and Tom Sanceau. In Canvas, the four bar aficionados have crafted a high-quality, low-fuss bar that has scooped a string of ‘Bar of the Year’ awards nationally. Now it’s time for Emily and Marco to chase new small bar dreams with their first solo venture to open in April 2013.
Canvas Cocktail & Wine Bar is the sort of bar you can imagine claiming as your local haunt even if you lived on the opposite side of town. Tucked between an elegant interiors boutique and a charming violin store on Logan Road in the newly revitalised Woolloongabba precinct, it serves some of Australia’s finest tapas, cocktails and boutique wine and beer without a hint of pomp.
Canvas’ streetfront is simply designed with wooden church pews, French-inspired steel bistro stools and a row of planter boxes overflowing with wild rosemary. Step inside and you’ll have a hard time choosing whether to sink into the Chesterfield leather couch or perch on a bar stool, slide into a booth or recline on a bentwood chair beneath the front window.
Emily explains that Canvas is the realisation of a long-held dream and the product of a leap of faith. “I just had the attitude that we’ve got to try it,” Emily shares of the impetus to launch the venture in 2010. “Marco and I have been together for nine years and he always wanted to open a bar – and I suppose it became a dream of mine as well.”
When Marco and Emily started talking with friends Bonnie Shearston and Tom Sanceau, they realised they all shared the same dream. Over countless dinners they hatched a plan to make it a reality. “We thought, let’s do it – it’s time. And if it doesn’t work, well we’ll live with that. But sometimes you’ve just got to take a risk,” Emily says.
The vision was to craft a small bar with a big heart. It helps that Marco is one of Australia’s most innovative and passionate bartenders. “Marco trains bartenders all over the country and he is very passionate about high-quality service with no attitude,” Emily explains. “All of us were determined to offer a quirky, comfortable, inviting setting offering high-quality food and drinks with an absolutely ‘no attitude’ policy.”
When talk turned to the perfect location for their small bar, the team felt confident Brisbane was the best home. “The bar thing is growing here and the small bar licence had only just been introduced so we were keen to be one of the first people with a small bar licence. We really wanted to be in the Woolloongabba precinct.”
The Gabba precinct’s reputation as an exciting foodie hub was growing thanks to resident Logan Road eateries Pearl Cafe, 1889 Enoteca, Bistrot Bistro and The Crosstown Eating House. The Canvas crew knew their small bar concept would fill a gap and help boost the precinct’s earnest reputation. As luck would have it, there was a perfectly sized shopfront available. They signed a lease in January 2010 and opened their doors six months later.
Almost two years on, Canvas is thriving. On weekends the bar is buzzing with a Sunday session of live music from 3:00 pm until late. Weeknights are taking off too, Emily says, compared to a time when there were almost tumbleweeds rolling down the street it was so quiet. Tuesday is ‘Tapas and Tequila’ night, Wednesdays feature talented flamenco guitarist Rob McMullan, and Thursdays bring ‘Absinthe Hour’ where punters are encouraged to “discover their inner bohemian and join the Absinthe appreciation society”.
Many pop into Canvas for an aperitif before dinner at one of the neighbouring restaurants and then return to Canvas after their hunger is sated. And their clientele is a diverse bunch. “It’s not exclusive in terms of demographic,” Emily says.
The Canvas crew’s effort is being commended with a string of awards, including ‘New Bar of the Year’ 2011 at the Australian Bar Awards, ‘Bar of the Year’ in The Courier-Mail’s 2010 and 2011 Queensland Food and Wine Guide Awards, and ‘Best Bar’ in map magazine’s 2011/12 EAT/DRINK awards. Emily regards these gongs as some of their greatest achievements.
She recalls the team travelled to Sydney last year for the Australian Bar Awards where they were nominated for five awards. Emily was one week away from giving birth, so she voyeuristically enjoyed the experience at home on the couch with their three-year-old daughter asleep beside her and their now six-month-old son wriggling in her tummy. “Marco did the acceptance speech and I got a shout out,” she laughs of the moment they won ‘New Bar of the Year’. “He was calling me the whole way through. That was fantastic!”
Emily and Marco have a lot on their plate, including planning their second small bar (their first solo venture) to open in April 2013. “It won’t be another Canvas but it will have elements,” Emily shares mysteriously, revealing it will be located on the corner of McLachlan and Connor Streets in the new McLachlan and Ann development in Fortitude Valley. Emily is also studying her degree in public relations and French, which she describes as the “longest degree ever” as it’s been interrupted by her babies and businesses. Asked how she keeps all the balls in the air, Emily credits her family for their support and Marco for being a hands-on dad and a calming influence. “And I do not stop moving,” she adds with a giggle.
Emily says one of the greatest challenges she and her Canvas cohort encounter is finding and holding onto good staff. “But there’s just such a positive vibe and a sense of togetherness with our current team,” Emily says gratefully, noting that many of their bartenders are industry award-winners and have worked in top bars in Australia and around the world. “Everyone is really passionate about Canvas, pumped about entering competitions and sharing a great cumulative wealth of knowledge about the industry.”
When asked if she considers herself a success, Emily instantly says yes because she measures success by happiness. “Career-wise there’s still a lot more I want to do. I want to open the new bar, finish my degree, help with The Gabba precinct, work for a not-for-profit, and have more children,” she adds. “But I feel so happy with everything we’ve achieved.”
She has some simple advice for others starting a new bar venture. “Be prepared to work hard. Don’t forget that your customer is your focus. The whole point of your operation should be to provide a pleasant experience for your customers. Enjoy it. And don’t be scared.”
Emily reminds herself of some wise words when life feels too hectic. “I remember that we’re all really lucky,” she says. “If we’ve got food, water and health, we are quite lucky. I just try and remember that basic mantra. Nothing’s too serious … I try not to get too hung up on the small stuff.”