Cover image by Jessie Ann.
From mullets, to Stranger Things, to Y2K fashion, it seems like nostalgia is one of the dominant cultural forces of our time. And bars are not exempt from this sweeping trend, as Bars & Clubs discovered by talking to three recently opened venues.
“It’s something that is instantly familiar,” says Dan McBride, one of the owners and founders of Enmore Country Club – a venue that is very much not in the country, but recalls the athletic clubs and sauna rooms of the 70s through its design.
“They say that fashion goes around every 30 years – everyone’s got a mullet these days. And I think Sydney did go through a big Prohibition style, Speakeasy style. And perhaps now, you’re getting more of that like retro 60s, 70s, 80s vibe.”
And there has also been a discernible inward shift, away from American themes and towards Australian, representative of an industry more confident in celebrating its home country.
“We’ve already dabbled in the retro Australiana theme, with [Golden] Gully and Sunshine [Inn]. The industry in Australia has come on huge leaps and bounds, even in Newtown or Marrickville. I love what Bob Hawke’s [Beer and Leisure Centre] do, it showcases some of the good parts of Australian culture,” Dan continues.
Escaping to the past
Bob Hawke’s Beer and Leisure Centre, which was opened by the Hawke’s Brewing Co. in March 2022, has a distinctive nostalgic theme, harking back to the height of Bob Hawke’s premiership in the 1980s. The entire venue – which is attached to the brewery – has the feel of an ‘elevated RSL’, straddling the line between retro and kitsch.
The initial concept for the brewery came when Founders Nathan Lennon and David Gibson were working as advertising executives in New York, and felt a kind of longing for their home country. They have tried to capture this with the venue itself, as Nathan tells Bars & Clubs.
“It was always important for us to try and capture a feeling that we describe as like when you’re homesick – the place you love and the things that remind you of it, that give you that hit of nostalgic homesickness.
“So that’s at the heart of what we feel this brand is about – appreciation of Australia as the Lucky Country, and I guess the part of that that probably resonates with us most is our childhood in the 1980s,” Nathan continues.
Nathan outlines how he and the company see the 1980s as an ‘Era of Good Feeling’ in Australia, and one that they want to faithfully recall.
“There’s a difference in the look on a guest’s face when they walk through the front doors of the Leisure Centre if they’re over 45 years old, than maybe someone who’s 25. It hits them in the heart. It snaps them back, that’s probably the most powerful part of what the experience is doing.”
But even for more recent generations – the venue perhaps creates a sense of ‘hauntology’, of nostalgia for a lost future, or a time that that these patrons may not themselves have experienced.
“For the younger [patrons] there’s an element of respect that we’ve executed it well, that we’ve remained authentic, and it’s an opportunity for them to learn a little bit about the past and maybe the generation of their parents, and if they want, a little bit about Bob.
“The influence he’s had on Australia as a leader, which, for a long time, there’s been a feeling that we haven’t had leadership that felt quite as stable and forward looking, as we did back in that time.
“The thing about nostalgia is the sense of familiarity and certainty, which I think in today’s world, we all really miss.”
A sense of immersion in bar concept is nothing new, as Jackie Schougaard, Venue Manager for the 70s themed Maggie May in Brisbane outlines.
“Escapism has always been central to an outstanding hospitality experience, and the post-pandemic landscape has only elevated this.
“People are wanting fun bar and dining experiences that they can enjoy with family and friends.”
And Schougaard also believes that venues are tapping into something in the wider culture.
“70s fashion has definitely seen a resurgence, and our 70s inspired theme gives our guests permission to let their hair down, enjoy delicious drinks and nibbles and soak up one of the most fun-loving eras.”
Nostalgia in the glass and on the plate
Schougaard raises an important aspect of any successful bar concept: that it translates well to the food and beverage offering. For Maggie May, this means tweaking their menu to suit the theme, but also to respond to modern trends, such as the ‘better-for-you’ drinking movement.
According to the Venue Manager, Maggie May offers “a wide selection of beverages to suit any occasion with a 70s twist, including an impressive list of non-alcoholic drinks and even low-alcohol options.”
The Enmore Country Club offers something similar, with retro-styled posters advertising the venue’s ‘signature serve’ of hard cherry cola and ‘Country Club coolers’ on the menu. Dan says that he has detected a back to the future approach on Australian drink menus recently.
“One thing I’ve noticed is a fall-back on classic cocktails. I always try and base my recipes on making a slight twist on classic cocktails. I think there’s validity in those classic drinks and the drink culture in Australia is starting to get tucked into those more.”
At Hawke’s Beer and Leisure Centre, the throwback theme is a central part of the business’s food provision, with an old school country town Chinese-Australian restaurant, The Lucky Prawn, at the centre of the venue.
“It was always going to be a Chinese-Australian restaurant,” Nathan says.
“It was about storytelling, it was about going back to those Sunday afternoons of our own childhoods, where our parents or grandparents would take us to the local Chinese restaurant.”
For Nathan, a key part of this storytelling is the figure of Bob Hawke too.
“Obviously Bob Hawke, not only loved Chinese food, but he loved the Chinese people. There’s an incredible history there, through the post-Tiananmen Square Massacre, granting asylum to 42,000 students and their families to ensure they had a safe haven.
“So there’s a conviction to being open-hearted and sticking to what you feel is right, that’s what Lucky Prawn represents. I actually think there’s nothing more Australian than a Chinese restaurant, go to a country town in Australia and it’s guaranteed there’s a Chinese restaurant, probably attached to a bowling club. It’s a beautiful migration story and it speaks to what’s made Australia Australia.”