Celebrating a decade of Rascals! Hear from Charlie & Cosmo about dive bars, survival and not being a dick

Story by Andy Ratcliff, email him at andrewjohn@me.com

Photography by Christopher Pearche @christophernpearce

Ramblin Rascal Tavern turns ten this year. To me, they are the groovy indie band that denied signing to a major label and refused to bow to the trends of the time but continued their pilgrimage to obtain a legacy of cheeky greatness. At the heart of this bordello of badass, they are three naughty boys who managed to pool their collective talents and instil an institution where good times reign supreme. Here, I talk to Charlie Lehmann and Sebastian ‘Cosmo’ Soto about the highlights and lowlights of owning Australia’s premier five-star dive bar.

Let’s start at the beginning. How did you guys get into the business and when/where did you meet?

Charlie: I started at 19 years of age at the Hilton Hotel, and I went from events down to Marble Bar as a barback and then up to Zeta Bar, which kicked off my love for bartending. Heaps of suits and suspenders as that was the era. Darden (who is currently surfing in Queensland and couldn’t make it to the interview) started off bartending with the rest of the dinosaurs in the Mesozoic era.
Cosmo: I was working for my Uncle who owned a Spanish cabaret restaurant/nightclub and I started working for him on the weekends and just thought if this other guy can bartend then so can I!


You all met when you worked together at The Baxter Inn, where you were the pioneers behind the joint and influenced many other people. What do you miss about those days?
Charlie: Ahh the golden years! Pre-lockout days and the beginning of the small bar era. I think on my first night I remember we had some staffies and ended up in a strip club. I spent my first pay packet taking the boys out.
Cosmo: Charlie was a regular there and we liked him so we got him a job.

What made you think you wanted to do it yourselves?
Charlie: I think we were young and silly. It was the time where the local government was pushing to have more independent operators in the city and it was easier to do it back then. Not to say it was easy. But easier than now. It was opportunistic.
Cosmo: Because we’re idiots!

For those who want to start a bar out there, how the hell did you make it happen?
Charlie: Jason and Anton (Swillhouse) helped us out with a lot of the process. Leasing lawyers, tax people and commercial real estate people to find spots. Anton actually found this site.
Cosmo: Not financially but things like how to write a business plan and other intricacies.

Where did the venue name come from?
Charlie: We were pissed at Frankie’s one night and thought that we needed to start writing down names for the place. We now have that list framed somewhere around here. I really wanted to open a gay bar called the Honey Drippers Honkey Tonk or Poppa Midnights.
Cosmo: We loved alliteration, and we liked having the Tavern part because it used to be called the King’s Tavern. We knew we wanted to include beers and music as part of that.

“We were pissed at Frankie’s one night and thought that we needed to start writing down names for the place. We now have that list framed somewhere around here. I really wanted to open a gay bar called the Honey Drippers Honkey Tonk or Poppa Midnights.” – Charlie Lehmann

We’ve seen some rough times over the last few years like lockout laws, flooding, pandemics and staffing shortages. What were the toughest times you’ve faced and how the f**k did you get through them?
Charlie: You can’t control the rest of the universe but you can control your universe. You just teach what’s in front of you to the best of your ability and teach what you know until you find a level where it all comes back to.
Cosmo: You just get through it. You just keep going. Also, alcohol helps.

What are some of the best parts about owning a bar?
Charlie: Hanging out with your mates! Having the ability to create what you want to see.
Cosmo: Having an idea come to life is just awesome. Especially when you see it, and it’s built, and you love it and hope that other people really like it, too. It’s a sense of achievement.

You guys are well known for being a fun bartender’s bar. I’ve seen footage of people throwing themselves down the stairs here, people falling off furniture and generally just having a blast. What are some of the most insane things you’ve seen here?
Charlie: Obviously some things I can’t share. Pure platinum used to be down the road and so that time brought some debauchery and lock-ins. Hanging out with Actor Danny McBride on Anzac day was pretty epic. The best nights are the nights when you don’t plan things.
Cosmo: Obviously hosting the Foo Fighters was a pretty cool highlight. (Singer Dave Grohl is often spotted wearing his Rascals shirt on stage).

I guess that answers my next question, which is, who is the weirdest or most fun character you’ve ever served?
Charlie: Hilltop Hoods, Danny McBride, The Foo Fighters, Briggs, The South Sydney Rabbitohs.
Cosmo: Charlie’s Dad!

When things get loose in here, and you have to escort people out, how do you go about doing that? Is it the RoadHouse mantra of ‘Be nice’?
Charlie: People can’t get angrier and angrier at you when you’re nice to them.
Cosmo: Wholesome hospitality!

It’s such an individual venue with intricacies that could never be concocted by a big group or hospitality company. You have the ‘Don’t be a dick’ slogan, you pioneered the ‘shit tinnie’ and you have probably the most recognisably branded merchandise in Australia. What is it that keeps people coming back?
Charlie: It’s the five-star dive bar feel. It feels like it could kick off into a party at any time.
Cosmo: You just don’t know what’s going to happen on any given night. There’s a sense of danger and fun, and hopefully, the staff put you at ease. I hope that’s what we deliver! It’s the sense that you could be having a quiet drink one minute, then the next, you’re cancelling your plans tomorrow.

I don’t think that really exists anymore in Sydney other than this joint. You used to have other bars like that but now as they’ve grown they’ve lost that edge.
Cosmo: They have more to lose now and they’re more company driven. We still don’t have much to lose!
Charlie: There’s no expectation here. A lot of other venues have great service and product but there’s an expectation when you go into other cocktail bars.

You’ve had some incredibly talented staff in your time. How do you keep them in such a competitive market?
Cosmo: You sort of lay out what you want to get from them and you deliver to them what they need. You give them an ear when they need it and be empathetic of their situation. You need to understand if it’s best for them to be in your company where you can foster that as much as you can. The longer they stay they obviously become more of a part of our family.
Charlie: You also work in the trenches with them. If they can see you working alongside them they understand it’s a team effort. If you treat your staff well and pay them the wage they deserve they generally stay.

Being around for a long time and hosting all these parties, have you got any tips to sustain yourself in this industry?
Cosmo: Don’t do what Charlie did at Tales of the Cocktail! Go at your own pace! I remember being younger, where we would just drink and work. Now I believe you need to have a hobby outside the industry. Otherwise, this will consume you.
Charlie: You don’t need to keep up with the Joneses here! Hydralite helps and try to get some rest. It’s there to be enjoyed! For longevity in the industry, just stretch! You need to have balance in your life.

This last one is for Charlie. When the Boston Celtics win the title this year, do you think you’ll add a championship banner in the bar to celebrate? (Sorry Cosmo).
Charlie: HAHA! I have a flag somewhere!
Cosmo: NO! You can hang a flag and I’ll spray paint “Portland” over it!