Watching The Lansdowne rebound and regenerate into Sydney’s new favourite venue is now my favourite spectator sport. Last rites were read for the Chippendale pub back in August 2015, when the 1930s building was set to be developed into a private music school – and many people read this as certification that, yet again, Sydney sucks. Another live music establishment had bitten the dust – one that’d played host to The Go-Betweens and You Am I and was the last venue standing from a cluster that’d been airing soundchecks and amped-up gigs since the ’70s.
But that deal failed to make it past the DA stage, and this downer of a story got rewritten with the best possible ending: in April, it was announced that The Lansdowne was bouncing back. Jake Smyth and Kenny Graham (the legends behind Mary’s and The Unicorn) were taking over and resurrecting the pub as a live music establishment, with a booking team from The Annandale Hotel. “Yes, they are opening a venue for around 250 patrons in a town where closing music rooms is a habit hard to shake,” wrote Bernard Zuel in the Herald. It was a welcome move, given Newtown Social Club was being dismantled and lockout laws had been bad news for the music scene.
And as much as I get people being drained by the setbacks to our nightlife, hearing locals constantly issue threats to relocate to Melbourne, while talking down Sydney like the city’s some kind of disappointing ex – that’s kinda boring! Let’s hear it for people who want to change things, celebrate what’s awesome and turn off that alarm system that’s constantly on alert for what’s wrong with Sydney. So I’m really psyched for what The Lansdowne team is doing – they relaunched with a local supergroup, the first Palms gig in ages, then The Preatures doing a $10-on-the-door show. They removed pokies, even though – as Time Out reports – this means ditching up to $300,000 in revenue. The pub also is safely placed outside the lockout zone, with a 3am licence and a menu that stretches until 2am (with a very 2am, #notcleaneating vibe – think Spam ‘n’ Cheese Dog, Wings ‘n’ Cheese, Kimchi Pancakes).
The regular not-so-late menu is very student-friendly given The Lansdowne’s proximity to nearby universities – most dishes are less than $20 and your accountant isn’t going to take issue with $10 lunch specials of mee goreng, steak and lasagne. What comes out of the kitchen powered by Phil Morgan (Hartsyard, The Unicorn) and his framed photo of Guy Fieri (“my spirit animal”, says Phil), are nostalgic favourites, remastered for 2017. From the childhood-evoking Ice Cream ‘n’ Chocolate Sauce ($10) to the very 1980s-style Sticky Wings ‘n’ Drums in Honey Soy ($12). Wedges with Sour Cream ($10) are a time-trip to every pub that was around in ’90s. It comes with “Dorito” sauce – and like much of The Lansdowne’s food, it’s straight-up and something you can’t oversell. It literally tastes like the Dorito salsa from the supermarket (and feels like a natural offshoot of The Unicorn’s signature move of serving French onion dip and Jatz). There are no tricks and special effects on show – the BBQ Cheeseburger ($17) is pretty much a descendant of the Mary’s cheeseburger, but with barbecue sauce. The Fish Finger Sambo ($16) is exactly as advertised, but comes with a bonus windfall of chips. (It’s apt that Phil – who has a sandwich named after him at Saga, run by ex-Hartsyard colleague Andy Bowdy – would have a strong sambo game.) Cauli Mac and Cheese ($16)? Eggplant Parmy ($18)? Check and check – high-comfort pub food that ticks boxes in a reliably good way.
It’s the evening pizza menu that unveils some blockbuster tricks – the in-house dough is fermented for a long time (it “takes 48 hours to get to your face”, explains the menu, “that’s why we can’t do it at every lunch”) and baked in custom-fit pans. They come out like matching domino pieces conveying mushrooms and cheese, or pepperoni slices from LP’s Quality Meats or (the headliner here), the Mary’s Burger remixed kinda in a deep-dish pizza style, with American cheese, beef patty topping, slathered special sauce and a green leaf or three as a vague acknowledgment that maybe you should have something slightly healthy with this.
The lunchtime mee goreng – inspired by a recipe that Phil’s colleague Hendra showed him at Hartsyard – gets repurposed here as a no-fuss pasta (an idea that Jake came up with). You can get it in carbonara form or with “burnt tomato” sauce.
I’ve been to The Lansdowne three times in the week it’s opened. I’ve never had to sweat over my bank balance during any of those visits – it’s an incredibly affordable place to go (and kept that way, not through cheap and nasty tricks, but Phil and Jake being clever about what’s available at market and generally being resourceful). It’s not fancy, overthought food, but direct and hunger-busting. (I ambitiously thought I could eat a whole pizza and “burnt tomato” mee goreng, but nope, I had to admit defeat and plead for a takeaway container.) I’m happy to see this place filling up with patrons – on Wednesday night, it was so crowded that we ended up hiding out in the pinball room and eating pizza on the floor, like we were in a share-house living room. It nails the local hangout vibe.
I like that they gave a local artist – Jess Cochrane – creative reign over the look of the pub. In Broadsheet, she joked about how she’d been cutting porn for two weeks, and she ended up getting a “crick in the neck” from pasting clippings from old Playboy issues onto the bathroom ceilings. I think it’s cool that she wants to subvert the way such imagery is looked at – but I do wonder if some people might not perceive this in a generous, feminist way and instead, cheaply perve at pics of boobs and just reaffirm the male gaze rather than challenge it. (The poles also made me think the same thing – and reminded me of The Simpsons joke, where Mr Burns mistakenly thinks he’s at a fire station and not a strip club.) These features are definitely meant to be thought-provoking and, like everything at The Lansdowne, can successfully claim “mission accomplished”.
The last gig I went to before The Lansdowne originally closed was the Mates festival organised by Palms – a great day filled with indie bands local and interstate (including Tempura Nights, who laughed off the sweaty weather, by saying they basically had Queensland crocodile skin and were unaffected by the humidity). I remember someone’s mum made the rider – and thought that such an unshowy event, run by friends who basically wanted everyone to have the best time, typified what was great about The Lansdowne. That spirit continues, cranked up to 11, in the new incarnation. Kudos to Jake, Kenny and crew for keeping The Lansdowne alive and very very well.
PS You can hear my FBi radio interview with The Lansdowne’s Jake Graham and Kenny Graham here.
The Lansdowne Hotel, 2-6 City Road, Chippendale, www.instagram.com/thelansdowne