Through rose-coloured glasses: Sydney's pub revolution

Through rose-coloured glasses: Sydney's pub revolution

Sydney pubs are experiencing a rosé-coloured seachange as more women step through the doors, demanding better dining and dining experiences, reports Jessica Ridley

If you’re up for a generous serve of people-watching with your Saturday long lunch, look no further than Totti’s on Bondi Road in Bondi. Merivale’s new Italian restaurant is teeming with young women sporting the latest threads and sunnies. They’re Instagramming every morsel that comes out of the kitchen and ordering jugs of Negroni and pinot grigio (served on tap, naturally). 

Large tables are laden with piping hot bread and an array of Amalfi-inspired antipasti. And the rosé-loving crowd is lapping it up. Once it’s time to stretch the legs and work the room, the beautiful people progress to the rowdier front bar, The Royal. 

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Jostling for position beside this set are a gaggle of prams, plus a host of barely walking toddlers, their watchful young parents in tow. It seems families love Totti’s as much as Bondi’s cool crowd. The combination of a fuss-free menu (complete with Neapolitan ice-cream sandwiches), attentive staff, an indoor-outdoor flow and the relaxed atmosphere has made Totti’s this season’s hottest venue in the East. And it’s women who are the biggest fans. Why? Because at pubs across Sydney, the times they are a changin.  

“Hospitality is the one respite from all the noise and challenges we face day to day,” says pub mogul, and Totti’s owner, Justin Hemmes in an exclusive chat to Local East. “Life is complicated enough. Which is why any experience in our venues has to be easy.”

The Royal has moved on dramatically from its former binge and biff culture. What was one of the most rough-and-tumble pubs in the area has in a mere matter of months transformed itself utterly to suit more genteel modern tastes. The reinvented corner pub has been mostly well received by locals, proving there was a real appetite for change. But Hemmes admits it’s been one of his most difficult projects to date. 

Justin Hemmes

Justin Hemmes

“A delicate touch was needed to keep the community on side,” he says. “We had to be respectful of what they didn’t want to lose, as much as price point and accessibility.”

Across Sydney, particularly in the East, it’s women who are behind this new era of social change at pubs. From Coogee Pavilion with its family-friendly rooms and entertainment, to the Bondi Beach Public Bar and Surry Hills’s wholly renovated The Dolphin, through to a plethora of female-friendly pubs in Paddington and Woollahra including the Paddo Inn, The Royal at Five Ways, the Village Inn and the Woollahra Hotel, pubs have steadily changed — for the better — in the past 10 years. 

Once almost on their death beds — think Surry Hills’s The Hopetoun (now decrepit and abandoned), Paddington’s Windsor Castle (turned into a house) and Bondi Junction’s Mill Hill Hotel and Cock N Bull (both razed) — many of the East’s pubs are now thriving.

Now offering sophisticated dining, great cocktails, light wine lists and slick service, pubs are catering to wider audiences. It’s a far cry from half a century ago when women were’t even allowed into pubs for a drink until Merle Thornton chained herself to the bar at Brisbane’s Regatta Hotel and demanded to be treated equally. It was a bold move for 1965 but it turns out Merle started something of a revolution.

“Women fill our venues seven days and seven nights a week,” says Justine Baker, the CEO of leading hospitality group, Solotel, owner of the Paddo Inn and the Golden Sheaf, among other venues. “They want intimate spaces within a big venue. Whether it’s a family dinner, a hens’ or a baby shower, every occasion can feel different with us.

“Men might consider the pub an escape from home, but women see our venues as an extension of their dining rooms. Particularly in high-density suburbs where everyone is living on top of each other.”

These days, she says, patrons expect better, healthier food, including salads and lighter sharing plates, as well as more inventive menus.

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“This comes back to what women want,” says Baker. “They want a long lunch in a breezy interchangeable space, where they can park a pram, graze slowly and share bottles of rosé. Many don’t want to go back and forth to the bar a hundred times. So we come to them.”

Solotel should know. As one of the state’s leading hotel groups, it has been at the forefront of the substantial shift in pub culture. And it’s fitting that these changes are being led by a female CEO.

“People’s social habits have changed,” Baker says. "They’re rarely going out and instead having more house parties. When they do come out, they’re drinking less, eating less and leaving earlier.”

Hemmes agrees that pub culture has totally changed in Sydney.

“Back in 1993, it was just blokey blokes standing around drinking copious amounts of beer and listening to bad music,” he says, recalling his early days in the business. “God forbid a woman came in. She would feel so uncomfortable, being stared down by a dude with bloodshot-red eyes. There had to be change and the scene has now evolved tremendously, particularly in the past few years, to be women friendly.”

Hemmes believes that when a pub changes, it changes a neighbourhood for the better.

“There are some brilliant small bars and restaurants around us [on Bondi Road], and that creates healthy competition and keeps us challenging ourselves,” he says.

And so with Coogee Pavilion soon to launch its next phase, with a new restaurant on the upper floors, and renovations ongoing or recently finished at several pubs across the East, expect to see more of the trend. We’ll drink to that.

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