Jake Smyth and Kenny Graham’s irreverent and assured style is a perfect match for the Sydney live music institution.

It’s hard to believe that the first time the landlord of The Unicorn offered Jake Smyth and Kenny Graham the leasehold of The Lansdowne – the legendary city-fringe Sydney pub that had sat empty since mid-2015 – they politely declined.

2017 was meant to be the year of consolidation for the pair, perfecting the offerings at Mary’s, their famed burger joint in Newtown with an offshoot in the CBD; and at The Unicorn, their award-winning pub in Paddington. If anything, they were thinking about opening up another Marys, so another pub would just interrupt their plans.

But they were convinced to just come and have a look at The Lansdowne – no pressure. Within five minutes of walking around the venue, they were figuring out exactly what they would do with the place. One thing was clear – they were going to return the venue to its former glory, and bring back the aspects that had made it so beloved in Sydney in the first place.

“We’re not fans of the word ‘concept’. Whatever the integrity or the history of the venue is, and breathe life back into whatever it was. The brief for this place was live music, a stupid pub and a shithole. We wanted to make sure all of those things existed once we reopened,” says Graham.

In true rock and roll fashion, the pair are recounting the beginnings of their involvement with the pub while hungover, after having been on an all-night bender with world-renowned chef Marco Pierre White until 4:30am. But like true professionals, they soldier on.

Every decision they made for The Lansdowne was informed by returning Sydney’s youth The Lansdowne’s “holy trinity”: cheap food, late-night hours and live music. And Smyth said they had the full support of their landlords.

“We made a lot of choices here that are not easy for a property developer. No poker machines, so you’re losing resale value on the building straight up. Turning the first level into a live music room, rather than having a pub downstairs and hotel rooms upstairs. We’ve got backpackers above this, but not doing it out here [on the first level] is a risky business.”

“The whole of Sydney is lucky that they have engaged with the project the way they have. They asked us to come on board and we immediately laid down a whole bunch of provisos, and fair play to them, they just said ‘Ok, we’ll listen to the people who care’. They’re fucking legends.”

Creative integrity

So what exactly is the latest iteration of the pub? It’s a rag-tag, brash and bold ode to Sydney’s rock-and-roll days, before lockouts and regulation upon regulation stifled good old fun. It is both something new and fresh, and yet very much reminiscent of venue’s hey-day.

And the boys have pulled off this fun venue with so many little things to discover, so many clashing details that look thrown together but are carefully cultivated, without the help of an interior designer.

“We’re basically the Lennon and McCartney of shitty pubs,” states Smyth.

“Designers always try and put their stamp on it, and we don’t really need it. I feel like an interior designer will look at our stuff and say no, no, no,” says Graham.

The pair say that together they work through a particular look for a venue by going through by rejecting many different options before hitting on exactly what they want. And where a designer will walk away once the job is complete, their passion for a how a venue looks and feels can’t be replaced.

“I think people can tell when they walk in the venue that there’s someone that’s also pouring them beers in here that’s invested in it past the opening weekend. Most designers are like ‘Well I’ve done my thing’ and then they walk away. The Lansdowne story isn’t finished yet, as far as the design is concerned. The punters will help design the rest of it,” declares Smyth.

This is an excerpt of an article on the new-look Lansdowne. To read on, check out the digital issue of Australian Hotelier, here.

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