“Our venues have this uncanny characteristic where you go in there for dinner and then you open your eyes and it’s 3am,” says James Thorpe, CEO of Odd Culture Group (OCG), which operates The Duke of Enmore, Odd Culture Newtown, the Old Fitz and the Oxford Tavern. The Oxford Tavern reopens today after undergoing a refresh – not an all-out refurb, but an update to its front bar, a revitalised menu and a new range of drinks. It’s retaining its grungy credentials, however, and is definitely still somewhere you’ll want to stick around till 3am.
OCG took over the pub in 2019; the last time it had a refurbishment was back in 2013, when what was then a notoriously gritty strip club was taken over by the Drink’n’Dine Group and spun into a hugely popular pub. It was when Sydney was in the throes of its love affair with American barbeque. And the Tav was one of the venues at the forefront of that fling.
“American barbeque used to be this huge thing about 10 years ago,” Thorpe tells Broadsheet. “The amount of outlets that sell American barbeque has shrunk to pretty much nothing in Sydney, because the demand just isn’t really there.”
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The Tav has responded to changing tastes with a reimagined menu by the group’s executive chef James MacDonald (ex-Restaurant Hubert). Rather than looking purely to the US, he’s pulled influences from across the world. There are snacks such as a taramasalata and a smoky eggplant dip with grilled bread, salt and pepper squid, tempura broccoli, and pork and duck terrine. There’s also a drinking-friendly dish of mussels with fermented chilli butter and fries for dipping.
Though times are changing, the Tav’s smoker, Black Betty, remains. But rather than turning out pulled pork and hunks of beef brisket, it’s now used to smoke crispy chicken wings, beef for pies served atop mashed potato, and lamb to stir through pappardelle with Danish feta. A few Tav favourites, including its nachos (“the thing people go on and on about”, according to Thorpe), chicken schnitzel and steak, are sticking around. It’s still doing a Sunday roast, but now it comes with a choice of Berkshire pork belly, Angus beef rump cap or chicken supreme alongside roast potatoes, carrots and Yorkshire puddings.
OCG’s group beverage manager Jordan Blackman has also given the drinks menu a refresh. A slushie “program” will include a Penichillin (an icy version of the smoky whisky, ginger and honey cocktail) and Jack Daniels and Coke slushies. Picklebacks are also on the menu, and, in tune with OCG’s other venues, the beer list is a highlight, packed with local goodies from One Drop, Grifter and Bracket Brewing, as well as inner-westie favourite, Resch’s. Wine continues leaning natural and minimal intervention, but there’ll still be a few classics to appeal to a broad church of punters.
Despite the revamp, the Tav’s grungy appeal remains. Its history as a strip club is incorporated via original neon signs depicting female silhouettes sprinkled throughout, as well as the old sign that hung out the front promising “topless” and “erotic” dancers. New cascading spirits shelves back the front bar, and there’s new furniture and booth seating. Soon, the wall between the back bar and the beer garden will be opened with bifold doors for better flow between indoors and outdoors.
“Aesthetically, it still looks and feels like a dive bar, which is really important to us because our two dive pubs – the Tav and the Duke – are two of the last dive pubs in Sydney,” says Thorpe.
He says the refresh has helped create more “usable” space for its events and performances. Now, there’s a moveable stage and a new sound system. This weekend, its monthly event Show Us Ya Tips, hosted by the Dollar Bin Darlings, returns. It’s a cacophony of inclusive, body-positive, queer- and sex worker-friendly fun, with dancing, music and stripping. It raises money for the Sex Workers Outreach Project.
“It’s the same old Tav … [but] there’s a lot that’s happened,” says Thorpe. “It’s retaining its identity and place in the community, but with substantial changes to the food and drink menus. It’s really exciting.”
The Oxford Tavern
1 New Canterbury Road, Petersham
Mon to Thu midday–midnight