Bars & Pubs

Publican James Wirth Talks Revamping Sydney’s Pub Scene

By Jacqui Thompson
9th Sep 2013

James Wirth and business partner Michael Delany have been very busy reviving Sydney's pub scene, one humble hotel at a time. With an impressive line-up of establishments: The Norfolk, The Carrington, The Forresters, Santa Barbara, The Abercrombie and most recently, the Oxford Tavern—these publicans are responsible for changing the way Sydneysiders enjoy their beers.

With a new layout and recently-opened The Californian restaurant at the Santa Barbara in Kings Cross, the House of Crabs set to open upstairs at The Norfolk, and major plans for the Oxford Tavern, there is a lot for James to fill us in on.

Along with all the publican chat, we hear about the boys' international fast food safaris and get a good old Bang Gang James 'Doom' playlist to get you ready for the week.

TUL: There has been a real resurgence in Sydney's hospitality scene over the last five years, and you have been key in revamping pub life. Each of your venues has been totally re-invented with a flamboyant mark—where have these themes come from? They all feel a little like entering Wonderland via David Lynch...
James Wirth: So Michael Delany (my business partner and team design dude) is batshit-crazy-borderline-genius. A lot of these ideas come from his mind and then get turned into something believable/doable through my mind. I like to think that he is Justin Bieber and I'm his puppeteering stage mom. Sometimes it's the other way around. Sometimes they start as a joke or a drunken "how good would it be if. . ." between me and him and then after talking about it for so long we think it's now actually a great idea and do it.

Brown cardigan, junk shops, Google images, seedy bars, Chinese restaurants, old dudes behind bars, strip joints, overseas "research" trips and benders, all influence what we do. We both like the idea of serving and making the customers laugh at the same time. Usually, I chicken out of the more offensive ideas much to Michael's disgust, but little bits of them stay. We usually spend way too long on tiny, tiny details in the pursuit of some "artistic" agenda that no one ever, ever notices. Michael and I once had a fight about menu fonts. Seriously.

TUL: You've managed to obtain some amazing spaces (that have passed their former glory), how do you choose a venue?
James: It's gotta have a certain VIBE when you walk in. It might be a pile of shit as it is, but you can usually tell if you can do something with it. You can just kinda feel it... or not feel it. We pick the venues on the space more than the location as a result of this.

Usually the older the better. And the ones that haven't had that stainless-steel-LED-lighting renovation that a lot of pubs did in the 90s helps too. Beer gardens are good also. If you like being there and drinking, the customers normally do too.

TUL: Tell us about the upcoming Oxford Tavern? When will it open and will there be any references to its saucy past?
James: Oxford Tavern will be a world famous SEX BBQ. Never before have meat and "meat" been combined to such success. A sports bar meat market for the whole family.

TUL: Can't wait to see that in the flesh. . . What other exciting plans have you in store for the Drink'n'Dine group?
James: We just opened The Californian, which is our LA-vibed eatery inside Santa Barbara in Kings Cross. We also put this space called the Hotbox into Santa Barbara that we like to call our "private prism of buck wildness".

Next, we are opening House of Crabs upstairs at The Norfolk, which will be our take on American-styled seafood, Coney Island seafood slums and Louisiana Crab Boil—bibs, eat with your hands, drink heaps of beer, ZZ Top playing kinda deal.

Then it's opening the Oxford Tavern, which will be it for the year. And then that's all we have planned for now. I'm going to get my license finally, buy a car and get lost in the desert for a while to unwind.

TUL: Your recent food research trip to America looked intense via Instagram—can you tell us some of the dishes/ menu additions that will come out of this trip?
James: I'm not sure we picked up anything directly, it's more just about checking it all out, eating some new food, putting on some kilos, drinking $2 Buds and hanging out with your work bros to focus on new ideas and not the day-to-day stuff.

You pick up little things along the way—the way bread is cut, how a bar top is built, how a bill is presented etc. The States is rad for fast food and street truck food, and that's kinda in the same ballpark as what we do at the pubs.

TUL: What were some of your favourite meals while you were away?
James: The Boiling Crab? in downtown LA is mind-blowing. Son of a Gun in LA?, El Chato Taco Truck late at night [LA], Roberta's in NY, Parm in Chinatown [NY] are all great too. The best thing you can eat in the States is still the lobster roll at Luke's Lobster on the Lower East Side?. So simple but so rad. I would eat one everyday and get mega seafood bloat if I lived there.

TUL: What do you love to drink? Any suggestions for punters?
James: Beer mainly. If not beer then tequila. If not tequila then whatever is going. I've been getting into drinking straight liquor lately too, which I'd never really liked before. I must be getting old.

TUL: You may refuse to answer this... but do you have a preferred child (pub) that you favour?
James: Not really. I like them all in my own way. Normally whatever one I'm spending the most time at is my current favourite but that quickly changes. Like every Sydneysider I like the newest one for a while and then return to the oldies soon enough.

TUL: Now, we would like to re-visit your Bang Gang days—what should be undertaken while listening to your playlist?
James: This is a semi-current collection of music that I've been listening to for the pub playlists. It's all over the shop so I'd smoke a spliff, go for a jog and read a book under a disco ball all at once.

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