Part of the most unfortunate of trends, beloved Sydney Road pub The Penny Black closed in early 2020. But, in fabulous news, the long-time fixture of Brunswick’s live-music scene has been bought by the same team that gave it its name in 2008. And it’s just reopened.

For rusted-on local resident Scott Assender – director of the 100 Burgers Group, which owns both Welcome to Thornbury and Welcome to Brunswick – it’s a bit of a homecoming. “I was keen to buy it back,” he says. “I love it, it’s one of my first loves. We wanted to restore it to its former glory.”

Former glory is one thing, but don’t expect a carbon copy of what it was in the old days. For a start, it’s called Penny’s now. And it’s familiar, sure, but there’s been enough change to give it its own, new identity. Japanese influences meld with its history as a grungy rock’n’roll pub, permeating through the overall feel, fit-out and menu.

“It’s Japanese-influenced, it’s definitely not Japanese,” Assender says. “We were influenced at the start by ’70s Japanese rock’n’roll bands. There was a band called Bow Wow and another band called Happy End. They had that post-Woodstock rock thing. Some of the imagery is based around that idea. We just hope we can capture the essence of that.”

But the Japanese inspiration is most tangible, naturally, in the food. Former Mulberry Group chef Sandy Melgalvis decided the menu needed to complement the booze and the tunes, rather than other way around. “We went down the ramen path and [we thought], ‘If they fill up on liquid, they’re not going to drink liquid and listen to rock’n’roll, they’re going to go home and sleep,’” she tells Broadsheet.

Instead, the focus turned to beer-friendly food that’s easy to share. Flame-licked yakitori come two at a time, with accompaniments such as mushroom and onion, glazed in treacle molasses made from slow-cooked vegetable offcuts, soy and brown sugar.

Something larger is the pork rib-eye katsu, primed to be the menu’s star attraction. There’s no rudimentary parma here, and this version might be even better. “We’re getting in a really nice local pork rib eye and we just bash it right out so it’s a nice big, beautiful thing to look at,” says Melgalvis. It’s panko-crumbed and crisscrossed with kewpie and katsu sauce.

Melgalvis is also running a relatively low-waste kitchen. The barbeque-sauce-slathered cauliflower katsu sando, for example, uses a cauli steak with all the usual trimmings: pickles, cabbage and kewpie. The florets appear in plant-based karaage form on the snacks menu, alongside dishes such as real-deal, non-veg karaage, togarashi-salted French fries and swordfish tataki – perfect for getting stuck into in the roomy, multilevel beer garden out back.

Despite all the changes, live music will be back when restrictions ease. The stage sits under the windows of the spacious front bar, with a ceiling high enough to emit a grand ballroom feel. In the 948-capacity space, expect to see fresh-faced artists and smaller touring acts.

With Penny’s joining the group’s neighbouring spots – Welcome to Brunswick, Brunswick Mess Hall and Little Mess – a bit of a precinct is percolating. And although the team hasn’t quite yet managed to realise its dream of connecting them all with a bridge, the alleyway between Penny’s and Welcome to Brunswick will soon be lit up with runway-style directional lighting, so you don’t even have to step onto the street.

Assender’s plan is to spoil locals with choice. “Any itch you want to scratch in Brunswick, you can do it,” he says. “The idea is it’s a precinct where people will go from one part of the precinct to the other as the night progresses, depending on what they want.”

Penny’s
420 Sydney Road, Brunswick

Hours:
Wed to Fri 5pm–late
Sat & Sun 12pm–late

pennysbandroom.com.au