News / Food & Drink

Historic pub reopens after four year hiatus

The Sarah Sands Hotel has had a complete makeover inside and out as it returns under new owners

Bartender Paige behind the taps at the new Sarah Sands.

Mark Phillips
Monday, June 21, 2021

THE last time we saw Sarah Sands four years ago, she was dressed in garish red and green and masquerading as a free-spirited Irish lass.

Now the old dame is back at the corner of Sydney and Brunswick roads in virginal white.

What is arguably Brunswick’s most famous pub standing guard at the entrance to the suburb for 156 years quietly reopened its doors on June 12, the first weekend since the lifting of the most recent two-week lockdown.

Operating under the name of Bridie O’Reilly’s, it closed in 2017 after property developers bought the site and promised to include a pub in their plans for a multi-storey apartment complex.

Now it’s original name has been restored, along with a new interior design and repainted façade.

The reopening will be properly celebrated with a ‘welcome weekend’ beginning on Friday.

But those expecting a grungy old school Brunswick local will be surprised by the sleek interior with its polished floorboards and airy lightness following a $3 million renovation.

The new Sarah Sands Hotel will be operated by pubs chain Australian Venue Co., which is owned by Wall Street private equity giant KKR.

Despite the slick new look, AVC area manager Michael Singleton said the company had been mindful of the pub’s history when designing the renovation.

“We take a lot of pride in preserving beautiful old pubs, especially when they’ve been closed and we have the opportunity to re-open them and bring them back to the community,” he said.

“We appreciate it’s a local landmark and we’re excited to be part of the pub’s next chapter — it’s already been so rewarding, seeing locals back at the pub since we opened on the 12th.”

A view of the front bar.

Although it is the first hotel anyone sees when travelling up Royal Parade into Brunswick, the Sarah Sands is not the suburb’s oldest pub. That honour belongs to The Retreat, a couple of hundred metres further up the eastern side of Sydney Road.

But the Sarah Sands is arguably Brunswick’s best known pub due to its prominent position.

It first opened on December 12, 1854. Originally nestled on the corner, the hotel expanded and went through several incarnations over the decades, including as a live music venue in the 1970 to 1990s which hosted local and international acts, among them Cold Chisel and You Am I on one of the latter’s first visits to Melbourne.

In 1997, its exterior was painted green, white and red and it was renamed Bridie O’Reilly’s and continued as an Irish pub for 20 years.

The site was bought by property developers Peregrine Projects for $6 million in 2015. Moreland Council successfully placed a condition on its permit that it reinstate the pub as part of the development.

A modern six storey building with 31 apartments has been constructed behind the original façade and over the old beer garden. Architects Jackson Clements Burrows and heritage consultants Lovell Chen have overseen the project.

The new hotel will have two bars, a public dining room, and two private dining rooms.

The focus will be on food, but Mr Singleton said acoustic music and DJs would also perform.

“A proper pub is a place where the whole community feels welcome, including both long-term locals and new neighbours,” he said.

“From your first visit, we want you to feel like you’ve been coming here for years … we want people to feel right at home.”

The relaunch was pushed back several weeks because of the lockdown, with the doors finally opening for a low key introduction on June 12.

A ‘locals launch’ this weekend will include a free drink on arrival on Friday, and complimentary chef’s snacks at the bar with the first drink purchased all weekend.

“We’re grateful that we’ve been able to open, even if it was a couple of weeks later than originally planned,” Mr Singleton said.“The community response has been amazing, we can’t wait to celebrate properly with everyone next weekend.”

The Sarah Sands today, and how it looked around the beginning of the 20th century (historic photo via State Library of Victoria).

The Sarah Sands today, and how it looked around the beginning of the 20th century (historic photo via State Library of Victoria).

A pub with a colourful history

The hotel was named in honour of the SS Sarah Sands, a steamship built in Liverpool (and named after the wife of the city’s mayor) which was at the cutting edge of technology when it was launched in 1846 (confusingly, a sign on the side of the building which says “estd. 1846” actually refers to the ship, not the pub).

After starting life plying the route between Britain and North America, it made a voyage to Australia in 1852 for the Victorian Gold Rush. There is speculation that the original licensee, Robert Barry, was one of those passengers.

It was later put into action as a troop carrier in the Crimea War and in 1857, three years after the pub opened, it caught fire en route to Calcutta. The story of the rescue of the crew and passengers gripped the British Empire and was immortalised by author Rudyard Kipling. The SS Sarah Sands was repaired and made many more voyages as a sailing ship before it was eventually wrecked on the Laccadive Islands south west of Sri Lanka in 1869.

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