Michael Bolt has been a fixture on the Keira Street scene for well over 30 years, showing an uncanny ability to pick the zeitgeist through his nightclubs, restaurants and bars.
The ex-footballer actually began his working life on the city centre strip, washing dishes at the Loong Chee Restaurant which once operated from where Caveau now sits.
‘‘I was 15 and I was the washer-upper at the Loong Chee, so I’ve been here a long time,’’ he said.
He fondly recalls all-nighters spent along Keira Street during his wild mid-20s - when he would spend his weekends playing football for the mighty Illawarra Steelers and running amok well into the wee hours of the morning.
In 1985, Bolt and his two cousins, Andrew Farrar and Kevin Cooney, opened the nightclub, Cousins, in the venue which would later become Bourbon Street and One Five One.
‘‘At that time, the Illawarra hadn’t been redeveloped and it was a very locals type pub,’’ he remembered.
‘‘We ended up getting a 3am license for Cousins, which really suited the lifestyle we had back then.
‘‘Sunday nights were pretty huge, we used to have these old time singalongs down in the bottom bar which were hilarious, DJs up the top and live music out the front - it was great.’’
‘‘Amigos had been here for years, and was an institution - I think I went on my first date there - so its was like this oasis with everything happening around it. There were also a few Chinese restaurants around, but the best thing was here [in the Red Square building] which was Mamma’s. It had the best schnitzels - they were huge and everyone remembers them. We used to finish up at the club and then go to Mamma’s until about 6 o’clock in the morning.’’
‘‘I was playing football, captaining the Steelers then. So I used to work until three or four in the morning and then be at training at 7am.’’
Ten years later, in the mid-90s, mod-Oz cuisine was in full swing and its main Wollongong advocate Lorenzo Pagnan, had moved his restaurant out of town to Bulli.
Seeing a gap in the market, Bolt and his then-wife Alison decided to open Metro - an upmarket modern Australian joint - in the shopfront which is now Balinese restaurant Spice Magic.
Metro stayed open until about 2000, when Bolt left Keira Street to concentrate on the Five Islands Brewery at the WIN Entertainment Centre.
Much to the disappointment of many Gen Xers, Mamma’s giant schnitzels are long gone from Keira Street, but Bolt has revived the pizza shop’s former home with his latest venture - Red Square - metres from where he ran Metro.
A small vodka bar with a loose Russian theme, Red Square was among the first of the city’s small bars which have since spread into laneways, derelict buildings and shipping containers.
He got the idea to open it in 2011, when the city was recovering from the post-GFC slump and GPT was on its way to reviving plans for its West Keira project.
‘‘I think about four or five years ago, the city was at a low point,’’ he said.
‘‘But I decided to open Red Square in 2011, and GPT still hadn’t decided if they were going to do the work here. But by the time I opened, it was all going ahead - so I was like, beautiful, this is going to be the main street of town.’’
Two years on the bar is thriving and Bolt has high hopes for the future.
‘‘I know everyone has been avoiding the area for the past three months with the road closure, but we’ve had a couple of our best weeks ever over winter,’’ he said.
‘‘It’s going to be brilliant and there are so many little things that are happening in this area of town. You’ve got this great pizza at Lupa, which has book-ended the street and the little container bar just down the road.’’
‘‘There’s some good franchises opening up, and you’ve got this great mix of other places, so I think it will spread out and make people see that there are so many opportunities in areas like Upper Crown Street, ’’ he said.
‘‘Wollongong is in a transition stage, and I think it will take even another step up in 12 to 18 months.’’