Reinventing a bar: James Bradey on the decision to overhaul The Rover after ten years of successful trade

How to reinvent a bar – it’s more challenging than starting from scratch!

Story by James Bradey
Photography by Dominic Loneragan

For the past couple years both myself and my business partner Waz have been grappling with the idea of revamping our Surry Hills bar, The Wild Rover. After what is now ten years of drunken debauchery, tens of thousands of sausage rolls and countless whisky tastings, the venue needed some love. Combined with how the area has evolved and generally “smartened” up, with the additions of Poly, Pelligrino 2000, Firedoor and Nomad’s new digs, it was time for us to step up our game. I mean, women don’t even throw their bras across the bar at Big Griz at Tio’s anymore!!!

I’m no longer the same as I was ten years ago. What I look for has evolved and some would even say I’ve grown up. So, am I still the right person to be making decisions on what should change?

But how do you determine if Liquid & Larder’s second venue needs to change at all? Any business, let alone a bar, that has lasted through these last ten years in Sydney must be doing something right. How do you determine what needs to stay and what needs to change in order to last another ten years?

The new look Rover

I’m no longer the same as I was ten years ago. What I look for has evolved and some would even say I’ve grown up. So, am I still the right person to be making decisions on what should change?


It’s been several years since I made drinks with any great consistency. The last time I did, I kept reaching for the clear bottle, bottom right of the speed rail… looking for sugar syrup and wondering why my drinks kept tasting more boozy? (I think it was a pre-made tequila something!).

It’s these questions that have caused us anxiety; indecision that what we are doing is correct and casting doubt over our ambitions. We are not the first people to redo a venue, and most certainly won’t be the last, but we have found this process extremely challenging.

So how did we go about determining what would make the Rover a success for the next ten years?

To start with we looked at who we are and what we stand for. What is it that the people coming to the area want most and why do our guests visit us and not one of the dozens of decent venues around?

Our answer was that we are a bloody good neighbourhood venue. The Rover is somewhere people always feel welcome from the moment that big green door is opened.

The “Rover roar” beckons you in, the team inside offers genuinely friendly service and it’s an overall experience which matches expectations by simply being hospitable. The jovial spirit of the venue must stay!

Then we determined how we could lift the venue up, adding layers of sophistication without alienating those who have loved the Rover over the years. We’ve added warmth, polish in a number of ways:

Product offering: We’ve increased and improved the food from simple bar food to a seafood-driven menu. I’m sure there are a number of people reading this (hopefully) who have spent time in New York at venues like Maison Premiere, Ten Bells and Pearl, to name a few. These venues have such a vibe. On the drinks front, we kept the whisky focus but Alex Gondzioulis added his craftsmanship to the cocktail list, creating drinks with finesse. Kyle Poole (Liquid & Larder’s Group Sommelier) has elevated the wine offering, putting forward a really punchy, fifty strong list of biodynamic & organic wines to complement the food.

Fit out: Nicer table tops, carpeted floors and a new back bar have been installed, but the main changes happened out front. Our hidden from plain sight entrance is no longer; our windows are now opened up so natural light now spills in. We figured the speakeasy style entrance had run its course and if people hadn’t found us by now they were not going to. Layers of polish have been added to create an environment which lends itself to indulging in the new seafood-led offering. Nobody wants to eat a dozen Moonlight Flats Oysters while slugging down a bottle of Larmandier Blanc de Blancs in a sweaty bar while the bartender is romping around with his shirt off!

Service: This element has been the key to bringing to life the new incarnation of our neighbourhood boozer. We’ll still be offering genuine hospitality but we’ve upskilled the team so they have the confidence to better recommend the expanded offering and feel comfortable working with food and wine. We have never hired product focus people. The Liquid & Larder culture is built on empowering our people to be themselves and let their personality shine. In return, they enhance the guest experience.

Next we argued, and argued, and argued, over what the redo would cost. We took so long arguing that Covid happened and the cost of the fit-out doubled. So, my advice here is just fuckin pull your finger out and act. Don’t be rash, do your due diligence and implement well thought out planning. Consider how you spend your money and what will bring value to your business… then act as soon as possible because shit will only get more expensive!

Finally, surround yourself with the best possible personnel. It’s no secret hiring staff has been difficult the past couple years but we have been incredibly fortunate to keep so many who have been with us for years. Coupled with some amazing new additions, we feel very lucky. We have also grown and evolved and have come to understand we can no longer do it all ourselves. We have a better understanding of our strengths and more importantly, our weaknesses. That’s why for any new or redo job, getting a team of designers, branding and PR, builders and craftsmen early in the process is key.

Therefore, thank you to our guys on the ground from Kim and Dean, Luis and Lukey, Pip, Gonz, new kids on the team Kyle and Oxy to TMH Designs (@tommarkhenry_), Squad Ink (@squadinkstudio), Example (@weareexample) and Green Anvil (@greenanvilco). If it was left to Waz and I, the new Rover would never have happened.

All that’s left now is for you to come in… and let me know if we got it right!

The Rover
75 Campbell Street, Surry Hills

James Bradey is the owner of Liquid & Larder Group venues including The Rover, Grandma’s, Bistecca & The Gidley