Where the spirits run high, and the drinks never run dry

Last year, Matt Barnsley, Venue Manager of Austin Club in Christchurch, caught up with Melinda Clasper, from OneMusic, to talk about opening a bar during COVID, embracing 1950s style, and providing an exclusive, underground performance space for some of Christchurch’s best musicians.

Written by: Bex De Prospo

In the heart of Christchurch, down a hidden alleyway and beyond a password-protected intercom, intrepid epicures will find Austin Club, a late-night cocktail bar “where the spirits run high, and the drinks never run dry.”  In early 2021, Austin Club joined Nick Inkster’s family of bars (which include cult favourite, OGB, and the newly opened Irish pub, Paddy McNaughton’s) as a “hideaway for Cantabrians”. In less than a year, Austin Club earned its first win at November’s Restaurant Association Canterbury Hospitality Awards for the OneMusic-sponsored category of Outstanding Ambience & Design.

Matt & Britney

Venue Manager, Matt Barnsley, reflects on their winning recipe. “I remember coming into OGB for a glass of wine one night and [OGB Owner/Director] Nick had just signed the lease for Austin Club. He sat down and started telling me his idea and vision for this new, underground cocktail bar and he walked me down and showed me the space. There was nothing in this damp basement except a couple of builders, but when Nick described the fit-out, you could picture it.

I went home that night and I couldn’t sleep. I just kept thinking about this venue.

With his international experience in high-end cocktail bars, Matt says he knew Nick was onto a winner. “When I told my friends and family in the UK that we were opening a venue during COVID, they thought it was madness. The UK was in lockdown and hospitality was dying. But little old Christchurch was going alright and we thought, let’s try to get something up and running. It was like Christchurch was ready for this. With the contacts and trust Nick had built with his customers over the previous years, I felt like he was one of the only owners who could pull it off. He’s the main man and the vision; the one who makes it all happen.”

Nick was joined by architect Mijntie Lepoutre to create a perfect period aesthetic for the unique underground station space. “Mijntie has worked with Nick on a lot of his other venues and they both have an impressive eye for detail. The bar is quite neat, and we’re all uniformed in that post-1950s style which really stamps home the concept. We’ve got an old church lectern where our maître d’ stands, and behind the bar we have different trinkets from the time period which really elevate the space. They become great talking pieces as well. It’s so interactive.”

The bar is quite neat, and we’re all uniformed in that post-1950s style which really stamps home the concept.

There were some aspects of the concept that they knew would be a gamble, in particular, the password entry. “We weren’t sure how that was going to go, or if Cantabrians would find it too pretentious. But we hadn’t even opened our doors and we were already getting messages on the password intercom. People were finding the password on our website and leaving us voice mails. And we just thought: Amazing. This is going to work. That was quite a cool moment which came before we’d even made our first cocktails.”

Louis & Jayden

Matt says he was lucky to be joined at Austin Club by “a strong, young Kiwi team. Our head bartender Louis had just come back from working in the Sydney bar scene. Lack of support through COVID had forced him to come back, which ended up being perfect timing. And my second-in-charge Britney brings her years of high-volume venue experience to the music and operational elements of Austin Club... Service is your performance and the venue is the stage, essentially. Making sure they’re intertwined is really important. And the big thing with underground bars is the lack of windows; creating an experience of escapism and a fun space.”

Service is your performance and the venue is the stage

Music plays a major role in the overall experience of the space as well, Matt says. “Especially when we first opened, there were people who were probably expecting us to be a bit more of an underground nightclub and not, like, a cocktail jazz lounge. We had a few people come in and sit down, and then just go straight back out because it wasn’t their thing. And that’s fine. We’re not going to change who and what we are. We know this is our identity. It’s definitely a little bit more niche with the music and the performers we have: gypsy jazz and swing music with mid-week comedy. It’s real vibey and probably not everybody’s cup of tea, but it seems to fit well down in the basement.

Trevor Jones

“We’ve got the main bar area and then what we call the actual Austin Club, which is where the musicians play. We’ve been quite lucky with getting great musicians who are all locals and a nice variety.”  In-house regulars include the tireless Adam McGrath of The Eastern and gypsy jazz duo Fiona Pears and Connor Hartley-Hall, while also allowing space for early-career musicians who are just starting out, Matt says. “We’ve started to fill our back wall with everyone who’s played there so we’ve got a timeline of who has come down to perform. It ties the musicians in a little bit more, which is quite cool.”

In the wake of the COVID lockdown in August of 2021, Austin Club reopened with a renewed commitment to the Christchurch music community. “Nick made a big call after the last Delta lockdown to reopen and keep the live music every night.”

Obviously, we took a bit of a hit, but we wanted to try to maintain that relationship with musicians as a bigger part of the Austin Club. We’re all in this together.

That community mentality has paid off, Matt says, with a great catalogue of regular local musicians and a familial atmosphere which translates into a really positive customer experience. “I’ve never worked in a venue where I’ve seen that chemistry between everybody, all working towards one goal but focused on different areas. From the customer responses, you can tell that they’re picking up on that as well. We’re starting to see customers now who understand the routines of our performers and come in specifically to support the musicians. It’s fantastic."

The team is also working hard to create an inclusive experience for a range of clientele. “Austin Club is tailored for people who enjoy the finer side of music and cocktails, but we also want it to be approachable for Cantabrians. The atmosphere is a bit more sophisticated, but we’re not Melbourne or London."

A big part of what we do is adapting and making everybody feel welcome. We’re here for it. We love the challenge.

The future is looking bright, Matt says, for both the industry and the city. “It’s been crazy to watch the development of Christchurch. I couldn’t even imagine seeing anything like it in the UK at this stage. I don’t know how many venues have opened here in the last 2 years. It’s amazing!  I’ve been working in hospitality coming up to 12 years now, and the last thing I really wanted was to be working in a venue that closes at 3AM, but it’s definitely well worth it. Building a change in the night culture of the city is why I enjoy what I do.”

You’ll find Austin Club at 236 High Street, Christchurch Central (down the laneway between Mecca and Lululemon)… and if anyone asks you didn’t get the entry password from us… shhh.

Learn more about the music licences we have available for your business here.