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How the Lansdowne was saved

Jake and Kenny at The Landsdowne
Photograph: Anna Kucera

The sad tale of Sydney’s cultural demise since the lockouts came into effect is a familiar dirge, but Jake Smyth refuses to sing along. “I fucking hate seeing those fucking articles, ‘Why I left Sydney/Why I’m leaving Sydney/Sydney you’ve been great but you really let me down.’ Fuck off. Do something about it. It’s not good enough, because Sydney is genuinely one of the best cities I’ve ever fucking been in. I don’t live in Sydney because I ended up here. I’m not a victim of circumstance, neither is Kenny. I’m in Sydney because I love it here and I’m fucking committed to this city… to leave it better than we found it.” 

And that is the energy that Smyth, co-owner of Mary’s and the Unicorn Hotel, and business partner Kenny Graham are bringing to their next big project, the resuscitation of one of Sydney’s hallowed homes of dirty rock’n’roll, the Lansdowne Hotel.

Talk to anyone who grew up here during the ’80s and ’90s and they’ll have a tale about the Lansdowne. Friendships were forged, romances kindled and brain cells destroyed over nights of Bundy and Coke on tap, five-dollar steaks and scuzzy bands. “Everyone had an old story about it and had an opinion on it,” says Graham.

“There’s tradies who’ve come in and said ‘I used to drink there’; Steve Pavlovich used to book here right at the start, in the late ’80s. We took Andy Kent from You Am I through and you know, just hearing those stories from those musicians, taking those guys who were actually there in the ’90s and just seeing their excitement on their faces. I feel like there’s a brewing excitement about Sydney in general,” says Smyth.

“I’ve been getting stopped in Bunnings, people saying ‘congratulations, thank you so much for doing this.’ And I think there’s a bit of a disconnect because people did not go to the pub in 2013. It’s not like it closed its doors on hundreds of people. No one was going there but people have this otherworldly connection to this pub and there’s this idea that maybe it could be like what it used to be. And not just the Lansdowne, but maybe Sydney culture could be like it was. It’s giving Sydney a fucking shot at change.” 

So just how did two beardy chaps famous for kicking off the American cheeseburger trend in Sydney become the sworn protectors of afterdark hijinks?

“Our landlord at the Unicorn heard around the traps that the people who’d bought it and turned into a music academy couldn’t afford to do the DA,” says Smyth. “They asked us about it in November and I said ‘no’ straight away because we don’t know anything about live music. And then they took us through and we thought well we should fucking learn something about live music.” (“They’re pretty persuasive in that sense,” adds Graham.)

“So we found people. You know, there’s that old saying ‘if you don’t know how to do it, find someone who does.’ We’ve got no fucking problems running the pub. But the big thing and the most important thing about the Lansdowne is that it’s a live music venue. Matt [Rule] was in Thailand and sent me an email and said ‘I heard you’re opening the Lansdowne, I want to be involved.”

Graham explains, “It was very old school… all done on a hope and a handshake, no contract, no nothing like that. They’ve got a real love behind it, a real energy behind it, which is exactly what we needed, someone to match our level of enthusiasm from the other facet of the pub. We’re really excited.”

So that was it. Smyth and Graham brought the lessons they’d learned from running the Unicorn Hotel in Paddington to the table and joined forces with Matt and Dan Rule, two of the city’s most famous bookers who oversaw the Annandale band room in its glory days.

The Rules’ new music empire will be built up on the first floor. The former dining room has been transformed into an acoustically insulated band room that holds approx 250 people.

If your ears need a rest, downstairs things are remarkably unchanged. Sure, they’ve cleaned the old girl up a bit, but the graffiti along the timber bar is original, those dorky music note stained glass windows are still in pride of place and they’re putting the pool table back where it always lived. But not the pokies.

“We’ve seen fucking pokie machines taking over the city and killing our venues,” Smythe seethes. “I was thinking about why pokie machines are so fucking bad, outside the obvious ­– the individual family problem – but on a societal level people just become so insular. It’s isolating. Pubs have been the everyman’s church – you go for community, you go to be part of something. And then all of a sudden we’ve got all these hyper addictive, hyper isolation units… and the outcome of that has been the death of the music scene in Sydney. Our two pubs won’t have poker machines and any other pubs we have won’t have poker machines.”

And while this promise might sound pretty, it costs a lot to forgo gambling profits – somewhere to the tune of $200,000 to $300,000 a year. Instead, they’re putting all their energy into making the Lansdowne the new homeground of pub rock, with killer eats. What the Mary’s boys did for burgers they’re about to do to pizza with the introduction of a Detroit-style deep dish pizza menu. It takes a full 36 hours to prove their dough which they wodge into square pans and top with cheese, barbecue sauce and a pepperoni made specially for them by their pals at LP’s Quality Meats around the corner. The result is light as air with the echo of Pizza Hut back in the good old days (no buffalo mozzarella here).

Ten-dollar lunches will be creative takes on what’s at the markets and is cheap. “Are courgettes amazing right now? Then let’s do stuffed courgettes for ten bucks, or a simple pasta,” says Smyth. After 11pm the plan is for a few snacks and a regional large format dish. “Maybe you’ll get like a whole Korean brisket with finger buns and it goes in the middle of the table for four people but during the dinners it’s going to be pizzas and burgers.”

And so that’s the plan for the biggest pub rebirth for 2017. “We can sit here and bitch about things or we can fucking do something and fucking bust ass to make sure it’s something worthwhile, and when we do open hopefully that might be enough to encourage someone else to do it. And another one, and another one. We’re not going to singlehandedly save anything, but we might be a part of that positive story about changing what’s happening here,” says Smyth.

“You need those inspiring stories,” says Graham. “In the same way that Nirvana inspired people to pick up guitars and start playing them in their garages… people need that little inspiration and it goes that way in every industry,” Amen to that.

Want more pubs? Check out our guide to Sydney's best.

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