Thanks to a recent takeover by Drink N Dine, The Oxford Tavern in Petersham will no longer be known for its waitresses’ extremely lenient dress code. Its R-rated past isn’t entirely forgotten, though – a sign for the Golden G-String Comp still accompanies the bar and the neon lettering that used to brightly crackle about girly shows now announces the establishment’s new attraction: “Live Hot BBQ”.
Sure, entry to The Oxford Tavern is no longer an admission ticket to scoring a beer and a perv, but that doesn’t mean it’s been replaced by some oversanitised pub. Like Jaime Wirth’s other Drink N Dine venues, a healthy amount of humour, playfulness and invention is on show here. The cocktail names – A Swinging Tit and Banana Hammock, for instance – are a wry dig at the establishment’s not-so-chaste history. The latter is like an adult version of a visit to your childhood milk bar, and our friend Dan suggests taking one of the banana lolly “garnishes” and using it as a “straw” for the drink, as a more boozy alternative to the Timtam-milk-sucking tradition.
Jamie Thomas, Drink N Dine’s executive chef, oversees the menu; he reprograms pub standards, adding livelier flavours and tricks from American and Mexican cuisine. Dino’s Charcoal Chicken ($18) isn’t the usual order you might get at a nearby Petersham takeaway joint; it’s a spiced affair, revved up with “kicktang sauce” and slaw, and is ready to be divided up with tortillas, beans and rice. And yes, there’s schnitzel, but at The Oxford Tavern, there are Mexican and Hawaiian varieties; there’s even a vegetarian eggplant version – crumbed, fried and so spongy-soft that it reminds me of nasu dengaku.
By the way, vego-friendly options abound here. Lots of dishes – from the zippy, chipotle-dressed Van Kalen Salad ($13) to the Double Dawgs ($14) – can be tweaked to be meatless, and stand-alone veg orders are pretty good. The Drink N Drine crew lives up to its fryer-worship (as epitomised by the famous Deep-Fried Golden Gaytime at The Abercrombie) by sizzling avocado chunks to a crisp and throwing them in a Taco ($5.50) with roast corn salsa, zingy mojo verde and a snowdrift of creamy queso cheese. My menu favourite is the BBQ Corn ($8), which looks like a cluster of cobs left in a sandstorm, but actually has been encrusted in popcorn and corn chips and is possibly the best – and grittiest – way to get a triple dose of kernel flavour.
The Jelly Wrestle ($20) is a dessert tribute to the skanky gelatine battles that used to take place at The Oxford Tavern. You’re not allowed to have it with cutlery and, in fact, you’re given gloves to tackle it properly. Diving your hands right into a four-jelly mess (where caramel popcorn, choc and raspberry sauces, whipped cream and a colourful tumble of hundreds and thousands is perched on top of waffles) feels more oddball than sleazy. In fact, the experience is like a cross between CSI and the most unsupervised kid’s birthday party you’ve ever attended.
Like the other Drink N Dine locations, the decor is madcap and inspired. Lamps are crafted from drum cymbals and tires. Stuffed animals – including the Chinese bear that used to stalk Santa Barbara – stand mid-prowl, along the bar. One wall is a staggering mosaic of thousands of bottle caps that have been hand-pixellated to spell out “Oxford”.
And there’s an Australiana theme – Christine Anu cover art, Graham Kennedy photography, outlines of local wildlife studded into a doorway – that resonates through the food selection. In fact, the barbecue menu will open properly on Australia Day.
The new version of The Oxford Tavern opened on Friday and I wonder how the pub’s previous regulars will react to an establishment now run by fully clothed staff. Jaime Wirth predicts that kicking out the poker machines (and slotting in a beer garden instead) would be more of a factor in losing old clientele. If you like the idea of a venue that has definitely adjusted to 21st-century ideas about women and is a fun place to enjoy a drink and not-so-common pub food, then you’ll welcome the clean-sweeping changes.
The Oxford Tavern, Petersham, 1 New Canterbury Road, Petersham NSW (02) 8019 9351, theoxfordtavern.com.au