10 years in: how Ramblin’ Rascal Tavern survived and thrived

How much did it cost to open Rascals? And how did Dave Grohl come to be a fan?

10 years in: how Ramblin’ Rascal Tavern survived and thrived
Owners Sebastian Soto, Charlie Lehmann, and Dardan Shervashidze.

When a new bar or restaurant opens, the press releases fly out and the critics go in, scores are given, reviews written, and some sort of verdict is given of the place’s worth: is it a good bar? A great bar? A forgettable one?

Those early days are important. The initial reception — of critics and punters alike — can set the idea of the bar in the collective consciousness. And that initial idea can be hard to shake.

But a bar is more than the sum of its early days reviews. And I’d argue that a bar isn’t really a bar until it has become than a space with a collection of booze. You need time to give the place character, for it to mean something to people, for memories to have been made, for life to be lived within its walls.

Well, Ramblin’ Rascal Tavern in Sydney turns 10 years old next month, and that place? That is a fucking bar, hey. And at the same time, it’s so much more.

When Ramblin’ Rascal Tavern opened in 2014, it was an instant hit with bartenders and hospitality. The owners — Sebastian Soto, Charlie Lehmann, and Dardan Shervashidze — opened on a Friday night, and there was a queue out the door for hours.

“Don’t do that,” says Sebastian — better known to the trade as Cosmo — in this week’s episode of Drinks At Work.

Back in 2014, I had the inside run on the bar as they were building it out, for a story I was writing. I visited them in late January that year, just after they’d got the keys and were in the process of demolishing the old venue. I’d then visit them every other week up until they opened, documenting a little of their progress along the way. It was something to see the place come to life. It’s even more special now to see them 10 years on, with another bar in their portfolio, and to see the trio together and having as much fun as ever.

The bar hasn’t changed much since those early days, if anything, it has evolved as they’ve added to what they do. 10 years ago, Charlie said to me, “People ask us what kind of bar we are. Well, we’re an everyman’s bar, we do everything. We do good cocktails, we do good wine, we do good beer — we do shit beer. And lots of shots of cognac.”

Today, that focus is still there. But they’ve added regular live music and grown the community around the bar.

“We have a lot of young artists come through,” Charlie says in this episode. “Every week from Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. So it’s sort of like a cultural hub now as well where it’s important for the community, especially for young bands... It’s bigger than us as well now. It’s bigger than just our industry.”

I wanted to talk the trio for their 10th birthday because it has been an important bar in the Sydney bar scene, and known around the world — Philip Duff and Ryan Chetiyawardana are two of the bar’s big fans, and even Dave Grohl — whom you may know from a little indie band called the Foo Fighters — is a fan, and has been seen wearing the iconic Rascals tee shirt.

But I also wanted to talk to them because the bar has been a big part of my life.

In this episode, they talk about how they got their start, the biggest challenges they’ve overcome, how they’ve been determined to go all in on the bar even in the hardest times, why community isn’t just a buzz word to them, how Dave Grohl came to be a fan, and whether they think it’s possible for young bartenders to do what they did today.

It’s a great chat, and, just like the bar, it’s gets a little rowdy. Here’s to another 10 years of Rascals.

They’ve got a week of birthday events planned, which kick off from the 1st of April — head over to their Instagram page @ramblinrascaltavern.

Below, lightly edited, are a few highlights of the many to be found in this interview.

You can listen to Drinks At Work on Apple PodcastsSpotifyAmazon Music and on Android.

“The beer got shitter.”

Rascals have, since they opened, offered a canned beer for $6. The Shit Tinnie, as they call it, has been adopted by bars around the country, too. And although the price hasn’t gone up in 10 years, as Dardan says, the beer has got worse to maintain the price point — which is all part of the pleasure of the thing.

“We live and breathe Sydney.”

When you talk to Charlie, Cosmo and Dardan, you get a real sense that the bars they open aren’t cynical exercises in making cash, but because they genuinely want to give colour and life to the city. Perhaps that’s to their own detriment, but they don’t have grand plans to open 15 venues. But they do pay their staff right, and the welcome in their bars is open to anyone — there’s nothing exclusive here. “If you’re doing this for money, you’re in the wrong industry,” Cosmo says.

“I told them, if it’s Justin Bieber, you can fuck off.”

How did Dave Grohl — you know, that nice fella from the Foo Fighters — come to be a fan? Listen to the podcast and Charlie will tell you the story.

“Precincts work.”

I asked the trio whether or not they’ve got a new bar on the way — a third bar for the table, For now, they’re happy with what they have, and they think that the CBD is getting close to saturation point. But there are green shoots happening in other areas, and if they see a new precinct come up and take off? That might get them working on plans for the next bar.

Further reading.

How to open a bar: “Dive bars never die,” says Charlie Lehmann
“It stems from adoration and just absolute anarchy.” Charlie Lehmann on Ramblin’ Rascal Tavern and building a bar that lasts.