On a glum, drizzly Thursday afternoon, there’s a tiny sense of euphoria at the Warren View Hotel.
“People are just happy to come in and sit in the pub for an hour. People just needed to decompress,” says Tanya Damianakis, who runs the inner west Sydney pub with her husband Theo.
On a neighbouring table, Gary from nearby Erskineville said he’d spent the previous afternoon walking all over the area looking for an open pub. Just when he was about to give up he found the Warren View, and a day later is back with three friends. Their sense of joy and relief is infectious.
“It’s so good. This is what I missed the most,” Gary says, tucking into a chicken parmi. “I just wish the footy was on.”
When Sydney’s pubs, restaurants and bars opened their doors just a crack last week I was, admittedly, skeptical. The pub conjures up memories of lazy afternoons spent marinating in a beer garden, conversations struck up with weird units in the drinks queue, the dank but oddly comforting whiff of old beer and fries.
Now, the pub experience sounds sterile and tightly regulated, robbed of a sense of freedom and possibility. To get a table, you need to call in advance. You’re limited to a one hour meal slot. The only smell is the sanitiser my hands are doused in at the door.
But inside the socially-distanced dining area, which looks out over a ghostly, cordoned-off beer garden, there’s a real feeling of intimacy. The unpretentious friendliness that distinguishes beloved neighbourhood pubs from the conveyor belt of newly-opened, corporate behemoths really shines through.
Tanya is bubbling, overjoyed. You can tell just how much reopening means to her. The food comes out fast, and nobody’s glass is allowed to go empty.
But in this surreal new pub experience, there’s a real sense of how bizarre and terrifying these last two months of disruption have been for the hospitality sector. Pubs stayed open during two world wars and the depression. Many won’t survive this crisis.
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The Warren View has been serving the Enmore community since 1870. Tanya and Theo, who’d worked in hospitality for decades, bought the pub 12 years ago. They’ve never seen anything like the pandemic.
“It was the worst day of my husband’s life,” Tanya says, describing March 23 when restaurants and pubs across the country were ordered to shut their doors.
“Just when everything was going well, we’d finished our renovations, business was going well, this hit.”
But Sydney’s pubs were being marginalised well before the pandemic hit. A series of wowserish state Liberal governments looked at such establishments with hostility, squeezing the lifeblood out of Sydney’s nightspots through lockout laws and zoning restrictions, until it seemed like the only things left were pokie dens and hospitality empires like Merivale and Solotel.
The changing face of Sydney’s watering holes is taking place right around the Warren View. Just across the road sits the hollowed-out shell of the Sly Fox, a queer-friendly club with a passionate following, which shut its doors in February after a long-running zoning dispute with the council.
The Warren View is bookended by two large, Merivale-run establishments. Neither of them have opened their doors yet, which the staff are keen to point out.
“The big chains just boarded up and put it in the too-hard pile,” Tanya tells me. “Those big groups just don’t give a fuck about the community, or anyone else.”
Politicians always pay lip service to the idea of “community”, but rarely stop to discuss what the term actually means.
The local pub never really gets its due as a vital community hub, or an antidote to social isolation. At its best it’s a place where locals can come, let their guard down and congregate. Tanya says the Warren View’s regulars have been returning throughout the lockdown at their usual time to pick up takeaway. Old habits die hard.
“We have people coming in every day in the afternoon. They’re not outside friends, they’re pub friends,” she says.
“It’s our own little pub community, and we’ve really missed that.”
In some ways, the pandemic is less of a profound disruption, but simply an acceleration of the kind of social atomisation that had been happening for decades.
Even before we were all forced to stay in our rooms, Australia was experiencing a crushing epidemic of loneliness. Attendance at religious services, membership of trade unions, and other markers of a collective, civic experience have been in steady decline.
As we continue down the slow, winding road out of the pandemic, and stumble from our houses lonelier then ever, we should look to the pubs, not just as a place to get on the sauce, but a crucial stitch in the social fabric of Australia — places that take clusters of disparate people and turn them into a community.