On the scene

So what are we drinking? Just ask Gabriel Presutto, The Panama's brand spanking new general manager

On the scene

Photos courtesy of Panama

With over 15 years of bar hopping and hospitality experience behind him, Melbourne’s Gabriel Presutto has brought a fresh take (and many a new tipple) to The Panama Dining Room.

“I used to live 50m down the road for about seven years, so me and The Panama go a long way back from the other side of the bar,” he says. “Once I walked in and saw those beautiful arch windows, I just fell in love with the space. And fell in love with the quirkiness of it too…

“People spend a lot of money trying to recreate such a space – it’s not trying too hard and it’s not that now ubiquitous Melbourne bar or café look of the moment that is all stark white walls and blonde wood. It’s got colour to it – it’s a nice bridge between the Collingwood/Fitzroy of old and now.

We climb the stairs, resist the oversized pool table (just) and slide into a booth with Gabriel – who loves nothing more than a good drink and bite.

What do you love about the hospitality industry?

The engagement with customers, but also I’ve just got a passion for food and beverage. I love the small producers – their products, the boutique-ness of it – and I really do just have a love of alcohol and a love for food. I will always order the most random and adventurous thing on the menu because I want to see what’s out there and experience it all.

What changes have you made since joining The Panama?

I’m someone who very much likes change so anything new and happening on the scene – that’s where I want to be at, and bring it through at The Panama. With the healthy competition of Smith Street [in Melbourne’s inner north] you have to be on it, you can’t be sitting back… You have to have a selection of amazing craft beer – people just expect that in a venue now. And with our cocktails, people want to be able to get a selection of things from Australian whiskies and Japanese whiskies, all the way through to good tequilas and gins. Australian’s are making some great spirits at the moment so [we’re] getting behind our local industry, pushing it that way.

Can you tell us about your favourite new cocktail?

It’s going to be a house martini. But I can’t say anything else about it… it’s a top secret martini.

What do people want from a night out these days?

I think Panama’s very distinct in what it is because we can offer a full restaurant and a full bar. Customers are after a full experience [and] they want to know that they’re going to a bar that has the latest drinks. Even if they don’t know what whiskies are around they want to learn, because they want to tell their friends, “I had a great drink last night, this is what it is.” And the days of offering just good booze are gone. You’ve got to be able to offer exceptional food to go with it. People are wanting that full experience wherever they go.

What’s happening with bar food at the moment?

Places still want to serve the humble bowl of chips, but now people are wanting other food options that are of restaurant quality. With the whole MasterChef saga that’s going on, people want good, tasty food. Melbourne’s blessed with having a lot of quality products out there, especially when it comes to quick food so, just like the alcohol, you have to be able to be offering tasty treats that blow people away. [Citrus cured ocean trout, beef with braised oxtail ravioli or pressed confit duck, anyone?]

It’s a highly competitive industry. Where do some places fall short?

I think people that aren’t experienced enough in the business side of it think that it’s a very easy industry to walk in to and just offer something… but the majority of people do struggle. There’s lots of little things that happen in the bar and restaurant world that people don’t think about. A lot of people open up without budgeting for stock – that’s a big on I’ve seen. People spend all their money on a fit out because they want it to look cool, but they forget they’ve got to spend around AU$40,000 on stock. Everyone thinks they’re just going to get it on credit but because it’s such a volatile industry, suppliers aren’t going to give you it on credit. You’ve got to wrap things up pretty quick.

Your tips for success?

Give the customer great experiences and just keep an eye on your numbers. And love what you do. If you don’t love the hospitality game, if you’re not in love with food and bev, you’re in the wrong gig.


Collective Hub and Xero are excited to be hosting an afternoon of sparkling wine, canapés and conversation at Panama Dining Room on Thursday September 3rd.  Last few tickets available here