"Having transformed a century-old masonic hall into one of Sydney's trendiest dive bars and burger joints, Mary's owners Jake Smyth and Kenny Graham have been making waves in the local hospitality industry in the past few years. Yet, despite the illustrious reputation Mary's has earned among the Inner West's hipsters, the boys remain two of the most genuine, hard-working, and hilarious blokes in town. Last year, Smyth and Graham directed their down-to-earth business ethos eastward, saving Paddington's The Unicorn from retail takeover and providing locals a new community watering hole. We took a moment to sit down with the boys behind the burgers and have a chat about schnitzels, STIs and the fundamental essence of an Australian pub."
BYO: So, how did this all begin?
Jake: Well we met when we were both living in Scotland, where Kenny’s from and was running a bar.
Kenny: We used to hang out a bit, Jake’s now-wife’s friend was working at the bar, so we got to know each other. Then my now-wife knew Ally (Jake’s wife) as well and came over to stay on the couch. So, through the bar mainly. That was in 2006 or 2007, then Kenny moved over in 2009.
BYO: And did you already have Mary’s in mind?
Jake: We had an idea. We got really pissed one night – well, we got pissed together quite a bit – but there was one night in particular that we just sat down, drank so many old-fashioneds and straight booze, and just realised how much we had a shared hatred about so many things in the industry. And there’s nothing that will bond people so much quite like hatred. So, we worked it out just by being miserable bastards.
BYO: So what did you hate?
Jake: What we hate is anything that’s disingenuous and false, so obviously what we love is honesty, transparency.
Kenny: Laziness, and lack-luster for food.
Jake: And people who see trend as more important than integrity. Suit-wearing managers wandering around air-kissing people rather than getting in and working hard. And like – uniforms?!
I still struggle with the fact that I can’t eat fine dining food served by people who look like me. We haven’t done that yet, but fuck we will. Absolutely we will. We’ll do fine dining in the sense that what you get on a plate is elevated – but we still have music at the volume we want. There are places that are doing it, but they’re still at the top-end of the town. There’s still this massive expectation that it’s gonna be mood-lit, jazz in the background, you know. The waiters have lost their ties these days but they’ve still got their suits on and that’s still a bit fussy for us.
Kenny: I remember a few years ago at Section 8 in Melbourne, one of our friends came to visit us after work in a suit and they told him to take is tie off at the door. I was like – fuck, that’s just as wanky as telling someone to put on a tie.
Jake: Back in the day though, it was even more, we didn’t have the Ester’s and the LP’s and the Automata’s of the world, which are sort of starting to cross that barrier. We’re talking 2007, this is foams and dusts and the height of molecular gastronomy.
Kenny: And small bars were just starting to sort of take off – all the managers wore suits, the cocktail offering was becoming better but they were expensive – they’d just jazz the place up a bit, but it was actually not any better than the pub down the road which was two-thirds of the price.
Jake: To clarify, we don’t hate those places because people wear suits. But what I struggle with is that the culture of dining is still so childish that we have to set up these rules where to get three stars, you must have this. Well why the fuck? It’s about the food isn’t it? It’s about the wine you’re getting, the knowledge that exists within the staff and their training, and how intuitive they are.
You know - I fucking hate, I fucking HATE jazz. I hate the jazz that they play in restaurants. If I hear Miles Davis in another fucking restaurant, I will kill myself. Do you know what I mean? I’ll kill myself. I wanna listen to Radiohead in a fine dining environment.
BYO: So that’s not exactly what’s happening at the Unicorn - how did that all come about?
Kenny: Well we definitely weren’t looking for pubs cause I guess we thought it was well out of our reach – they can be very expensive to get your hands on. But it was kind of just luck of the draw. The owners are friends of Oscar’s [McMahon, of Young Henry’s], and they were about to take a retail lease on it, but they really wanted it to be a pub. It’s been a pub since it was built in the 40s, so it was kind of just a last gaff effort. So Oscar asked us to come in, and they were like ‘right, you have four days to decide because we have to sign the lease.’
Jake: We thought the worst we could do was lose some money. I mean, we’re not from some Greek shipping company family but that was the worst that could happen. And the best that could happen was that we were gonna be fucking owners of a pub, and that’s a whole different thing. In our industry, if you’re a publican, that term lends its’ weight in this country. It’s not quite the constablery – it’s like the postmaster, the habermaster, it’s a pretty hallowed name for us – and so the idea of being a ‘publican’ was a big draw.
We’ve also seen the death of so many of our great pubs over the last little while, being bought out by Oscar’s Hotel’s or these horrible crummy pub conglomerates and they’ve just really done a terrible job of maintaining the pub’s heritage and what an Australian pub is.
BYO: So what is an Australian pub?
Kenny: It’s a focal point of the community, of the neighborhood. It used to be the corner store, it used to be the post office, it used to be where you would stop on your way out of town. All of those things. And that probably won’t come back due to general commerce that’s taken place, but that’s sort of – a place that the locals can just gather and talk about their day, and feel comfortable.
Jake: It’s not an event. Going to the pub isn’t an event. You get a pub meal when you don’t want to have an event. You go and have a couple of beers at the pub when you just wanna not do anything. That’s what it holds. Mary’s has become an event for people. And it’s great that it is and we love the expectation that people have when they come here and we try really hard to meet it, but the pub is a different thing. And you’ve gotta hold off trying to do impressive things because that’s not what people want – they want that relaxed family community environment. And then they wanna get accidentally drunk and not get thrown out because they’re wearing flip flops and a singlet after 7 o clock at night.
BYO: Do you think that’s happening at The Unicorn?
Jake: Yeah, slowly. And it’s a different area to what we’re used to. I think in Newtown it would’ve been received a little bit differently than it is over there, but the local community is massively rallying behind it, and it’s nice to get to know a different section of Sydney. In Sydney, more than any other city – a lot of cities – there’s a massive divide of North Shore, Eastern suburbs, Inner West, outer West and so on.
Kenny: And it’s kind of a no-mans land because it’s literally where the Inner West meets the Eastern suburbs.
Jake: And just across the road from COFA. It’s a real melting pot. We’ve got a good mix of people. And it’s been really nice to see the older Paddington locals coming down and really enjoy being with people.
Kenny: I think that’s when the pub things working when we do get older couples coming down for dinner at 4.30
BYO: Is it mostly Young Henry’s beers there?
Kenny: No, Oscar wanted to steer clear of it as well. It’ll sell the same beers as is in the area so it didn’t wanna be seen as competition to their existing clients. So we literally have the same beers as we have here – Newtowner and Cider, and a lager in a can.
Jake: They’re good beers and they’re good friends but ultimately Oscar’s a business partner of us and he’s one of the owners of there, so it’s not like YH is here. The Mary’s and Porteño partnership is a bit stronger.
BYO: So were they involved in writing the menu?
Jake: The majority of the menu writing happened between myself, Elvis [Abrahanowicz] and Drew [Corbel], and obviously invaluable input from everyone. Elvis is one of the best cooks in the country hands down, and it was such a great time in the set-up period to hang out in the kitchen and drink schooners of red wine and get his insight.
Kenny: It’s one of those things that once we definitively made a decision of what it was gonna be, as a classic Australian pub, most questions answered themselves. You wouldn’t see bangers and mash or steak pie, and you wouldn’t see it turn gastro. I guess it’s a little bit sort of French in it’s tasting in a way, just cause its buttered and steaks
Jake: Australian cuisine has always been about meat and fat, and minimal vegetables, so we cook with butter because olive oil wasn’t a thing in the 60s and 70s. People cooked with lard and they cooked with animal fats so that’s the way we cook.
Schnitzel is classic European food – that’s a technique, 14 different types of schnitzel, there’s thousands of different types of Schnitzel actually, you know Vienna schnitty etcetera – but you say schnitty in Australia and you know it’s a chicken schnitty. And it’s not a parma cos it doesn’t have no sauce on it.
And we’ve got food on the menu there that’s very, very straightforward – the mixed grill which is pretty much just rissoles and meat, and a plate of chops – they are a thing of delicious beauty. And being able to put that one the menu just like that with a piece of white bread on the side, that’s the kind of food we wanna eat at pubs.
BYO: Was there a great Australian pub you guys were inspired by?
Jake: I grew up in Huskerson down in the South Coast. You’d sit out in the Husky Pub beer garden with the kids in the sandpit eating terrible bistro food but the pub was just amazing – creaking floorboards and a hundred different renovations that were never finished and it was still heaving – it was busy every night of the week, it was a place for community.
There are so many good pubs. The whole idea of the pub is that it doesn’t matter if you’re the Prime Minister or a plumber, you go to a pub and it’s the same. That’s why politicians love doing that Politics In The Pub – they’re reaching out and saying ‘I am everyone, I am every man’. You don’t have to be there to be seen. If a pub is a scene-y joint, then it’s not a pub anymore. It’s a bar.
Kenny: One of these sort of Eastern suburbs chicks came in to The Unicorn one time and someone overheard her saying ‘ew, it looks like a bowling club in here’ and we were like ‘Fuck yeah! We nailed it!’
BYO: So is that the aesthetic, bowling club chic?
Kenny: Best looking bowling club I’ve seen.
Jake: Best looking bowling club I’ve seen too.
Kenny: The place opened in the 40s, so it’s almost like we’re turning the clock back and trying to let it grow old again. We never open anywhere finished.
Jake: A perfect example of that is the wall behind Mirror World, upstairs at Mary’s. There’s a whole range of photographs we’ve had framed and literally just stacked on top of each other. It’s our Wall of Death. Anyone who dies who we respect and greatly admire at Mary’s is up there – and that just started a year or two after we started at Mary’s. So when your grandmother dies, put it up there. But the idea that we would’ve gone out and bought frames and done that ourselves is just fake and disingenuous to us – and it’s the same thing with the pub.
And we need to allow the customers to decide what it is. When we opened Mary’s the walls were white. We didn’t have any of the murals done – artists came in and asked if they could draw on the walls and we were like go for it. They want it to be a dive bar so they make it a dive bar.
Kenny: All these drawings happened in like a week. I think it started at the CBD store.
Jake: And they just keep getting higher and higher, up to that massive glorious penis up there with the radiating sun.
Kenny: My favourite one is this one, ‘Pamela Anderson was right, barbed wire is SICK”
BYO: And what about the marathon sport sign?
Kenny: That was here when we got here, it used to be a Greek Sports Hall. The place was built in 1907 or so, and it used to be a masonic hall.
BYO: We heard it used to be an STD clinic too?
Kenny: Yeah that was just before, it was an STD clinic called ‘The Sanctuary’. There were three rooms out the back. My sister used to get mail from them, and there’s things such as like dating sites for people with STDs and they were sending mail to here asking if we want to renew their subscription.
BYO: That’s actually a great idea for an app.
Jake: Instead of Tinder you could call it Ulcer.
BYO: So you’ll be a bar owner, pub owner, and an app developer?
Jake: Yeah exactly.
BYO: Now I have a bit of a personal question. I noticed you started doing delivery, but it doesn’t stretch to my house. Is that like to expand?
Kenny: Well we run that through Deliveroo, and their rule is that they deliver 2km from the point of production, and we can’t physically do it from here.
Jake: But, we are looking into opening little satellite kitchens here and there to service that need. One thing we don’t want to ever do is this bar again – Mary’s here in Newtown is too precious to us – it’s beyond words how much this place is to me and Kenny personally. And the idea of rolling it out because the burgers are popular and just opening stores like this is fucking a travesty. It’s a horrendous thought. We’ll never do that. But we also acknowledge the fact that people want the burgers.
We thought opening the city would left the demand off a bit here and we could get back to focusing a bit more here, but it just got busier. That’s OK. But going forward we will never do this again. The CBD shop works in having a presence, but we’re playing around with the idea of just having kitchens around. It’ll be something like if you’re in between two pubs and there’s a window at 11 o’clock at night people can walk past and get a Mary’s burger and spill it on themselves. But also the next morning get it delivered when they’re hungover. We’re looking into it.
BYO: Mmm fuck yeah. So what actually is the secret of the burger?
Jake: Good quality beef! It’s just taking the time and investing the money and infrastructure into getting it right. The consistency is the integrity of the process. I would hope it’s the most consistent burger in the country. That’s what we fight for. The most delicious is a redundant conversation which I hate having with people because you will never make the most delicious burger for everyone on the face of the earth – we’ll all have a different opinion. But consistency – that’s why McDonald’s is king. They actually aren’t as consistent as Mary’s I don’t think – I have McDonald’s quite a lot and it’s up and down – but when you get a good McDonald’s it’s like fucking yeah dogs. And it’s delicious. But consistency is the king of this game and it comes down to not cutting corners.
Kenny: Whether it’s strategic or smart or what, we tried to remove ourselves from a lot of the hype about burgers. We try to stay clear of these competition things, we just rely on peoples opinions and we can’t win them all. Mary’s is definitely one of those things where people either love it or hate it.
BYO: We don’t know anyone who hates it?
Jake: Heaps of people hate it, and it’s fucking heart breaking, but go online and read the Google review of Mary’s right now – you’ll see them peppered with positive comments and the rest are just fucking hectic negativity. But we know I staff work fucking hard. And it’s fine, that’s what happens. Taylor Swift, haters gonna hate mate.
Kenny: It’s that rule of if you’re pleasing everyone all the time then you’re doing something wrong. We’re not trying to do it all – it’s not for kids and families.
Jake: Some people bring their kids. When we have our daughter and she runs around, I love watching other people eating here and there’s Cannibal Corpse on and Luna’s just like “RAARR” running around. It’s so good. It makes me so happy. They’re so confused as to what’s going on.
BYO: How about you guys? How’s your relationship?
JakeWe’re blessed. I’m blessed. I can’t speak on his behalf . But I am blessed to have somebody who understands me and sees my strengths for what they are, understands my weaknesses, works around them, and I try to do my best to do the same for him.
Kenny: I think that’s it. We both hold each other in such high regard that we both work really hard to keep that respect and impress each other as much as we can. And we’ve never had any issues.
Jake: Compromise is not a dirty word here. We don’t compromise on quality, recipes, process, but when it comes to what burgers or menu or wine we wanna stock or events we wanna do that’s just a compromise. We just wont do anything half arsed.
Kenny: yeah and I think we’ve been friends for a long time now but we didn’t grow up together so I think a lot of our friendship has been based around this.
Jake: Yeah, Kenny’s my best friend but he’s not my oldest mate.
Kenny: I think all of this is just a scene through our entire lives, it’s what brought us together in a way.
BYO: that’s beautiful
Jake: Isn’t it?