It’s been two years since a fire gutted beloved Newtown diner Happy Chef. And while the building has mostly lain dormant since, over the past couple of months keen-eyed locals have noticed the buzz of renovations going on behind closed doors. The bad news is that Happy Chef won’t reopen. The good news? Odd Culture, a two-level craft beer and natural wine bar and restaurant will take its place – with the Happy Chef owner’s blessing.

“Lee, the original Happy Chef, and his son, Richard, have been the owners and operators at the site for 30 or so years, and after the restaurant burnt down two years ago had plans to reopen,” James Thorpe, owner and general manager of the Odd Culture Group (previously known as Thorpe Hospitality; it also runs The Oxford Tavern and The Duke of Enmore) tells Broadsheet. “When Covid hit they decided it was time to hand on the baton, and they both loved the concept we proposed for the space.

“Our team loved Happy Chef and, like all in Newtown, were devastated to hear it would not be returning – but when we met Lee and Richard, we all clicked really well, and when they offered us the space we knew we could make something really special. They are big supporters of ours, and us of them, and we are working closely with them. Happy Chef will still live on through elements of the venue.”

Thorpe is giving the heritage building a $2 million makeover, accentuating the historic brickwork and cast-iron pillars that were revealed during the post-fire rebuild. Expect plenty of reclaimed timber, distressed finishes and natural light. A bar topped by a 20-centimetre-thick slab of concrete will be the venue’s centrepiece.

The Odd Culture concept might be familiar to those who have visited the bar of the same name on the second level of The Taphouse in Darlinghurst. Until recently Thorpe co-owned the pub with his brother Josh Thorpe, under the Thorpe Hospitality banner. Now James has sold The Taphouse to Josh, who has left the company. James has renamed Thorpe Hospitality the Odd Culture Group and continues to run the group’s other venues. Like its Darlinghurst counterpart (which will be getting a new name and a rebrand), Odd Culture Newtown will highlight wild-fermented beers, natural wines and cocktails (including one inspired by Happy Chef).

Expect house-cured meats, cheese and bread, as well as a menu of American-style deep-dish pizza that’s all about the toppings, rather than the bread. (“Think slices that taste more like a toasted sandwich than a pizza,” says Thorpe.) The food will also riff on the fermentation of the beer, with pizza toppings featuring fermented and cured ingredients. Thorpe says the venue will open for breakfast, “So you’ll see those exciting bits and pieces work their way into the breakfast menu, too.”

Plus, in more exciting news for Sydney’s drinking fans, Odd Culture has taken over iconic Woolloomooloo pub The Old Fitzroy, which hasn’t reopened since lockdown. It’s the second venue formerly operated by International Worldwide’s James Wirth and Michael Delany, and Drnks’ Joel Amos that Thorpe has rejigged recently, after reopening The Duke of Enmore in October. International Worldwide took on The Duke’s lease back in 2018, but lost control of the pub during Covid-19. While plans are still in their early stages, Thorpe says he’ll be ditching the pokies, maintaining the pub’s high standard of food and booze and working closely with Red Line Theatre Company, which operates out of the pub.

Odd Culture is slated to open in early 2021.