The northeastern suburb of Ivanhoe would rarely be described as a mysterious place. There is one part, however, that has an unusual, eerie atmosphere. Atop the hill where Heidelberg Road begins—right by Darebin train station—is a curious collection of stores. A used-car yard and a bike shop stand across the road from a hypnotherapy clinic and an adventure sport equipment store. Many of the cars in the car yard have seemingly sat unsold for the best part of a year. The hypnotherapy clinic is alarmingly super-enforced with thick steel bars covering its doors and windows; prompting an observer to wonder who or what on Earth they are trying to keep out… or in. At nighttime a golden retriever lives in the bike shop – his ghostly figure silently stares out at passers by. It’s weird to say the least.
A few metres down from this strange collection of stores sits Stoker’s. Its exterior certainly fits in with its neighbours’; thick velvet curtains cover the entirety of its windows, ensuring nobody can peep inside. Paint peeling from the shop front’s exterior accentuates the abandoned, ghost town atmosphere of the area. But for anyone a little freaked out while walking down this strip on an ominous-feeling night, they will find comfort by venturing through Stoker’s door and discovering what lies beyond the curtains.
For over thirty years this curious little lounge has sat unassumingly on Heidelberg Rd in Ivanhoe. It’s not difficult to see why so many people think it has long been closed – a faded billboard declaring that the cappuccino has arrived at Stoker’s “at last”, is as washed out as the peeling paint job on the exterior of the place. Only ever open after 8pm, this late night haunt is these days frequented by a mix of decades-long regulars, young families and uni students looking for a peaceful refuge from the outside world.
Every day thousands of people pass by without even realizing it’s there. A lot of the people that do acknowledge its existence believe it’s been closed for years. But every night until 2am, behind the thick velvet curtains that are always drawn, Stoker’s Pancake and Coffee Lounge is packed with people in-the-know, toiling away the night by the potbelly fire with cocoa in hand.
Walking into Stoker’s feels like stepping back in time. An old upright piano sits silently in the small but open dining space, as oldies tunes from the 1940’s softly fill the air. The open stove fire burns in the middle of the room ensuring its warmth reaches every table around it. So contrary to the world outside, Stoker’s feels welcome, cozy and safe.
On a chilly Monday night at 7.55pm there is a small crowd waiting at Stoker’s entrance. A couple with a baby and a young boy in his pajamas eagerly rush over to the table closest to the fire. Within minutes the family is happily slurping the lounge’s trademark hot chocolate and marshmallow. So is a pair of teenage lovers, a chatty group of Chinese uni students, and some BFFs catching up on the gossip from the weekend. Within fifteen minutes of opening the place is almost full – a feat not many of the restaurants up the road on the Ivanhoe shopping strip could claim.
The oddity that is Stoker’s is not restricted to its façade. It is unusual for a late-night haunt to have a ‘no alcohol’ rule, just as it is strange to see Bonox on a drinks menu. Who on Earth goes out to enjoy a hot cup of Bonox these days? Who drinks Bonox these days!? Loris, who owns the lounge with her partner Ling says a surprising amount of guests do. “It’s mainly the regulars, who have been coming here for years and years that drink the Bonox, though we also get quite a few young people who try it just out of curiosity. They are like, ‘what the heck is Bonox!?’ When I tell them what it is many screw up their face, but some people like to try it just for fun”.
Drinking beef stock “just for fun”. Yes, that’s the kind of peculiar place Stoker’s is, but it proves only to be endearing. There is something very wholesome about it; a feeling that extends not just from the lack of hard liquor, but from the entire atmosphere of the homely space – cut off from the outside world in seemingly space and time.
When Loris and Ling took over from the previous owners two years ago (who had been running the lounge since 1977), they did try adding alcohol to the menu, but felt it compromised Stoker’s vibe. “We had liquor on the menu for a couple of months last year. It just wasn’t popular though.” Loris explains. “People don’t come here for that sort of experience. Part of Stoker’s popularity is because it is very family friendly and unique”.
They also tried opening in daytime hours, but found that too clashed with “essentially what Stoker’s is—a night haunt”, as Loris remarks. The only change that Loris and Ling have really made taking over the business is opening on Sunday evenings. “It’s one of our busiest nights now—it’s great”.
Through trial and error Loris and Ling discovered that Stoker’s is perfect just the way it is – peeling paint and all. “We have no plans to renovate or make any changes. It would be too much change, and we find people like it as it is.” This extends to the packet-mix pancake formula the chefs in the kitchen use. And as Loris claims, it works—by 11pm there is a wait for a table as dozens of night owls tuck in to batter-wrapped strawberries and cream; or Loris’s favourite, Banana and Rum. Without the rum, of course.