If you don’t creep around the bar industry like me, you mostly likely imagine bartenders as young, slightly insane boozehounds with an uncapped potential to party. This is not completely untrue (insert many names here) but it could not possibly describe the widely diverse group of bartenders we’ve come to love and know. Every bar I go to, every bartender I chat to, I hear the name Pasan Wijesena, so I know this guy’s gotta be something different.
I go to Newtown to visit Pasan and his love shack Earl’s Juke Joint. In the spirit of giving too much information, I would also go to Newtown for Mary’s, Continental Deli, Miss Peaches etc. But shutup other venues and get out of the spotlight, this is about Pasan and how everyone keeps sending me emails, and snapchats and love notes about how fucking great he is.
Apparently Pasan is some kind of bartending god, a new breed of bar owner they say. Some say he has the knowledge of a thousand and the thirst of many more. Despite him being an above average legend, I went to see this star attraction, who also moonlights as all-time dad of Ellis, to see just how he runs this sexy sweat box that even people from Manly go to between their part time DJ slash model job to join the fruity freeway to “I don’t give a shit what you think town”.
He hasn’t taken a sick day in 12 years and still has a smile on his face, so what the shit makes this guy the new breed of bar owner, apart from his height and perpetually positive attitude?
Look at this happy son of a gun. You wouldn’t know this guy’s been around the industry for a while. He was one of the original crew at Shady Pines, way back when no one really got what they were doing and thought apple juice and rye was just plain weird. His career began cutting shapes at de nom where he mostly hustled cocktails to socialites and coke heads. He took his first shift at Oxford Arts while Crystal Castles played in front of him.
“I was lucky to be around at the right place the right time. I met Anton at Ruby Rabbit – followed him to Oxford Art Factory – Jason was there too – and then obviously onto Shady Pines. It’s not all given to you though, you’ve got to do work. Just so happens that Sydney was ready for the small bar scene, it was on the cusp. Now, the original crew from Shady Pines have gone on to populate the whole of Sydney with drinking dens, including Earl’s.”
Anyone that whips out their photos of their one year old five minutes into an interview, while sitting at a bar, is a good guy to me. To top off this super nice guy rendition, he shows me the tatt of his wife’s name, the only one that really has “meaning” on his decorated body. He used the words “bugaboo” and “mowing down pedestrians” in one sentence and I’m wondering why this guy doesn’t have more awards.
To me, Pasan is old school, because unlike everyone else that deals with what’s in front of them, mainly lines, he deals with what’s around him, namely life. And Earl’s Juke Joint is a place where life flourishes. Like a detox clinic, if you were detoxing from all the mainstream pop-culture bullshit you beeline to your veins every day, then replaced it with fun cocktails, twangy tunes and good people, all backed by a long mahogany bar that’ll make you feel whole again.
Work life balance, mate
Work-life-balance isn’t usually a term you hear around bartenders, but Pasan seems to know what’s up.
“In this industry everyone’s in their 20s-30s, it wasn’t always a family sort of business, everyone’s doing late nights, partying pretty hard – but now you can balance that. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a job that everyone can do, you’ve got to be cut out for it, both physically and mentally. You’ve got to deal with some shit some nights.
“But now, as people become a little more aware of the potential in this industry and stop casting it aside as a uni trade, the culture is changing. Now you can bartend four days of the week and have three days off. You can spend time with your kids, and that’s probably because the industries getting better. Better venues opening up, better quality of staff, people taking it seriously like as a career.”
Owning bars is a lot like having children. People have one, it does pretty well, can hold a gaze, even walk a little, then they think ‘why not another’. It’s a similar pattern, open a bar then two years later you open another. While it’s great for the Sydney scene, it’s not for this family man.
“The scene is a lot tougher now. There’s a lot more venues, so basically you’re competing with friends. I like the lifestyle of having one bar. I’m not interested in adding 80 hours to my week. And, I’m certainly not in a rush to get into debt. It’s vital to have a safety net of being entrenched in the industry and knowing everyone; it’s really important for the longevity of your business. But I’m not about trying to buy up real estate. I’ve never wanted to cannibalise my business like that.”
Make friends not regulars
I feel like Earl’s is the kind of place I could send my mail and that would be totally cool, like that’s how down to earth Pasan and his team are. And, when you build rapport with regulars the way Pasan does, it’s no surprise they become mates.
“There’s a bunch of regulars that become friends not just customers. I met George McClean because he would come into Shady Pines all the time. It’s that sense of family. The team all treat Earl’s like their own venue too, which brings so much camaraderie to the place. I guess that, the service and our relaxed attitude are what keep people coming back.”
Above everything, I feel like Earl’s works because it’s really just an extension of Pasan’s personality, a bar owner that has a certain set of values he won’t compromise for anyone. People will say it’s cool because it’s like a ‘Louisiana soul saloon fronted as a 1950’s butcher’, which is true, yes, but it’s also because Pasan and his team are people you’d pay to hang out with. They’re warm, respectful, conversational and sometimes funny I guess.
Head down to Earl’s Juke Joint in Newtown to find out for yourself. Oh, and if someone could pick up my mail while you’re there, that would be much appreciated.