It’s Thursday, early afternoon. A bar pretending to be a pizzeria lights up its neon sign and “Frankie’s Pizza” lights up the CBD. Secci stand and chat at the doorway, faces lit up with red fluorescence. Outside the enclave of peeling posters and red carpet, commuters pass by, buoyed by the autumnal downpour and promises of an after-work pub attempt.
It’s just another day of work as usual, but it could be one of the last. Frankie’s is due to be demolished this year to make way for the NSW government’s Sydney Underground station. The plan, valued at $26.6 billion and cash, will involve the underground destruction of Hunter Street and, with it, the bar that has made a mundane city project the subject of widespread public mourning.
After all, this ending seems unfairly premature. When news of the bar’s impending closure was made public last year, the wave of protests that followed felt justified. In just ten years of service, Frankie’s has circled death, surfed the crowd and climbed the stage to become a landmark on Sydney’s nightlife scene. From New York pizza slices to the evolving lineup of craft beers, or simply the penchant for all things loud, rock, thug and unassuming, Frankie’s has built a reputation that feels decades old, with a brand of incomparable notoriety by the most emblematic dives of the city. Obviously, its closure will come too soon.
Yet despite all the misfortune of a dismal Thursday, the bar staff aren’t wearing black because they’re in mourning. Figures move quietly, roll drums across the floor, and repair fallen garlands. In the daytime you can see even more swear words on the wall, if that were possible, and staff disappear inside and outside doors covered in graffitied group posters. There’s no sadness, just work to do and another big night to prepare.
Jordan, we are told, is the guy to talk to. He pulls a round of beer, shakes off the rain after running back to his car and settles into a round cabin, someone lights a candle. “No one really feels like it’s a sinking ship. It’s more like a matter of pride, going all the way. Jordan lived through Frankie’s colorful ten years the most. Questions of favorite parties or musical acts quickly coalesce into “eras,” defined first by the heady days of the early years, followed by steady maturity, then COVID, and now a return to ” that strange, surreal, drunken place” of yesteryear.
As owner, Jordan gives the final say on all the urban myths we ask him to validate. Yes, the Foo Fighters have taken over the speakeasy’s “secret” bathroom. No, David Grohl only poured shots of Don Julio to people walking around. And the origin story of the bar? “The whole concept was to feel inhabited…something a little more romantic than it being just a total shithole.”
Legend has it that ‘Frankie’ opens a family pizzeria, and when his nephew takes over, he sets up a grunge bar out back. Nostalgia is built, only in part. The posters are twenty layers deep, all pasted up when the bar opened in 2012. Still, there’s no denying that Frankie’s has become something of an unceremonious gallery. Every square inch was regularly taken over by the public, with an ever-changing collection of graphic poetry, drunken advice, raw cartoons and the occasional “was there” – for now.
The bar manager, Em, points to the walls behind the booth: “I’ve definitely written some pretty explicit stuff on those walls,” she smiles, without going into more detail.
What she’s happy to talk about are people: “You’ve got the suits and the students, the fags, the freaks, the hippies. Metalheads and crust punks. Yeah, there aren’t many places that are such a melting pot. Clearly, the bar seems ripe for culture clash. Still, Em insists that beneath the tough exterior and all the tattoos, Frankie’s has been a space for people “who don’t really have a place in the world.”
This is a difficult point to dispute. Every day you’ll find corporate types side by side with hardcore punks and diehard fans alongside newbies who have no idea who the band is. “It’s an island of misfit toys,” says Callum, a bartender eager to snap photos with the wax man behind the bar, sunglasses perched between melted eyes. “Damn, I don’t even know you guys, but I’m sure you can feel it. I’ve never been anywhere and I immediately thought: “Oh, I feel comfortable”.
This acceptance of anyone (and anything) makes events like Freak Flag possible. “He was a fucking hitman,” laughs James, a resident barback turned bartender and a decided “character” according to the staff. “It’s kind of like a celebration of alternative culture, lots of weird stuff,” he continues cautiously, keen to give a reasonably printable description of the event that happens once a month on an unspecified Sunday.
Another round of watermelon beer and the first crowd enters. It’s an assortment of backpacks, piercings, collared shirts, and unruly shoulder-length hair. Between more unmentionable stories about Freak Flag, which everyone provides a lot of, the lights go down and the music gets typically loud. Everyone is welcome, and according to Callum there are only two rules: “Drink what you like and listen to what you like, it’s simple.”
That ‘simplicity’ will be hard to regain when the bar closes this year, if government plans go ahead. Jordan describes his Hunter Street site as a “damn rare beast”, thanks to its 24-hour license, coveted underground facility and ability to accommodate large crowds, “I’m not sure that would translate to another space, but if a suitable space appeared, we jumped on it.
News on final dates is also unclear, thanks to unsurprising delays in the city’s lineup. Jordan’s eyes wander the room. “Wish I knew when this was going to end so we could plan this… You know, bring Prince back from the dead.” For now, the bar remains open beyond its original demolition date, previously set for mid-2022. There are many uncertainties, but the staff is optimistic.
Em speaks softly of the moment the news broke, becoming uncharacteristically respectful. “Everybody got together and had this little crew meeting, and everybody huddled in a big circle… Then it was like, okay, we really have to make it that matters.” As the conversation turns from the past to the future, it becomes clear that for staff there is much more to lose than jobs.
“I’m a little upset my kid doesn’t see it,” Jordan says, “I was really looking forward to her growing up and knowing it was her bar or whatever, but it won’t.”
For James, the closure of Frankie will mark the end of an important chapter. He met his girlfriend and the band members here, played their first gig on Frankie’s Hallowed Stage, and got to play with the long-admired house band. Callum also started out as a regular until a former manager promised him a job. “He said you look like you’re making a ton of money, but you hate what you’re doing…if you’re that unhappy, quit your job and I’ll make it work.” Three years later, he takes us on a tour of the secret speakeasy, recounting the “exact moment when [each staff member] helped and changed me personally. And I couldn’t repay them for it.
It’s hard not to feel a little heartache wondering what kind of chapter will close when the boards go up.
Still, if you’re walking down the street, drawn by the bright red pizza sign, you wouldn’t even know that Frankie’s is halfway down memory lane. Dollar slices of pizza for happy hour, a jam-packed setlist for months to come, and, by the sounds of things, a legendary send-off for the end of the curtain.
Before the evening begins, we ask Em to give us his eulogy for Frankie’s. She does not disappoint.
“I guess it inspired and shaped a lot of people and not many places do. Few places have a real cultural impact in addition to being cool places to relax. They do not inspire the scene. Em smiled at a poster somewhere across the bar.
“If you were there, you were there… It was a place in time, and you really had to experience it.”