Poker king takes a punt
KESTER Solomon has taken perhaps the biggest gamble of his life.
After leaving behind the searing neon lights of Las Vegas and the pressure-cooker business of professional poker, he has ensconced himself in the old-world charm of chandeliers, Queen Anne replica furniture and tapestry rugs as proprietor of Liberte at the London Hotel Wine Bar and Coffee House in Albany, Western Australia.
My husband and I had arrived in Albany aboard Classic International Cruises’ MV Athena on a five-night journey to WA’s south coast and Liberte had been recommended as a good starting point to explore the city.
The unmistakable cardinal red canopy at Liberte’s entrance stands out against the warm cappuccino colours of the former London Hotel building, erected in 1909.
The light and bright coffee shop at the front leads past the huge French Revolution painting in the hallway to the parlour.
There, regal wallpaper peacocks rule over expansive timber floors and velvet drapes, leather sofas, mantelpieces adorned with tiny ornaments, gold-painted mirrors and marble-top coffee tables.
After the glitz, glamour and schmaltz of Vegas, this is certainly a much more refined and elegant look, if not a little displaced in time.
But the parlour and its adjoining library with its heath and photo-less picture frames is very much a meeting place – a breath of fresh air in a dockside setting.
On a busy Thursday morning, a well-dressed son was shouting his mother high tea, while two 20-something women played ladies, an elderly couple met up with a friend for brunch and two tables of girlfriends in their 30s caught up on all the gossip over huge cups of coffee.
Kester said that as the former London Hotel, the building had a 100-year vintage.
But its rough-and-tumble reputation had to be pummelled into submission when he and his wife and interior designer, Amanda, took over in December 2009.
“It was a brawlers’ bar,” Kester said matter-of-factly as we sipped our coffees beside him in the red velvet lounge setting.
“We had to renovate everything – you could see the dirt through the floorboards.”
The result is a European-style coffee house and wine bar oozing personality – a place where the 8.30am espressos and sherry pick-me-ups head on through the lattes or chardy with lunch and the trendier pinot set after 4pm.
Not only has the opening of Liberte proven he’s not all bluff, Kester still has big plans for the establishment.
A New York-style cocktail bar was on the cards when we spoke and eventually he would like to recreate the wonderfully quaint backstreets of Marseilles with al-fresco dining and drinking.
“It’s not everyone’s cup of tea,” he acknowledges when it comes to the hotel’s transformation.
“But we have great coffee, liqueurs, spirits, boutique bottled beer, a good cocktail list and gorgeous champagne.”
Wine bar and coffee shop proprietor is certainly a turnaround for the former Perth boy.
The cash game specialist has played alongside some of the best in the game, including former Australian World Champion Joe Hachem.
Still, he remains coy when asked if he did well out of his poker-playing days.
He simply flashes a smile and says, “I’ve still got the shirt on my back.”
And you get the feeling that in this hospitality game, if Kester plays his cards right, he will have a full house every night.
GOOD TO KNOW ABOUT ALBANY
Albany is 400km and just over four hours drive from Perth.
Liberte Wine Bar and Coffee House at the London Hotel is at 162 Stirling Terrace, Albany, WA. Phone 08 9847 4797. Opening hours, Monday-Tuesday 8.30am to 7pm, Wednesday-Saturday 8.30am to late.
Albany Visitors Centre and Booking Service, Old Railway Station, Proudlove Parade, Albany. Bookings: (08) 9841 9377. Information: (08) 9841 9290. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Athena cruises from Perth and Adelaide next summer from $450pp for two nights. A five- night cruise next summer from Perth to Albany and Esperance is priced from $1095 per person, twin-share. Children under-18 travel free on several cruises, paying only taxes. Book through travel agents. For more information, see Classic Int Cruises.