Andrew Dunne is a publican with principles.
He took on the licensee role at The Lass O'Gowrie Hotel in Wickham four years ago because he didn't want it to become an apartment block, or be bought by a hotelier who applied a "cookie cutter" approach to its appearance, menu or "vibe".
He wanted the Lass to keep its identity - what made it unique - and for it to remain a community hub.
It's a similar story with the Royal Oak Hotel in Tighes Hill. It held sentimental value for Dunne, who used to stop by for a schooner, a skateboard tucked under his arm.
When he heard that the Oak's owner of 40-plus years, Barry Barnett, was being approached by hoteliers and developers he felt he had to do something. So he sat him down and shared his vision for the Oak which, as it turned out, aligned with Barnett's.
And so Dunne and his business partner, chef Josh Nicholson, leased the Oak from Barnett in April and set about refurbishing its front bar and food offering. The end result is a respectful balance of old and new that will attract new faces to the venue but not (they hope) repel the long-time regulars.
Nicholson, who is also the executive sous chef at Rick Stein at Bannisters in Corlette, project managed the refurbishment at the Oak and is in charge of the food and drink offering.
His wife went to school with Dunne ("Dunny") in Newcastle, which is how the pair met. When Dunne took over the Lass, Nicholson helped him set up its new Mexican restaurant, Las Salsa Picante.
When Dunne unexpectedly bought Masa Madre Sourdough Pizza in Wickham earlier this year, it was Nicholson who took charge of the kitchen to ensure the product was as good, if not better, than before.
"Barry Barnett is the owner, he has owned the Oak for the past 46 years, and he was at the end of his tether," Nicholson says.
"He didn't really want to hand it over to anyone else but Dunny went in and chatted to him and kind of struck a deal, on the proviso that we paid the building the respect it deserves.
"A lot of other people had approached Barry but he had seen what they were doing to other pubs and he was not interested in that happening to his baby."
Nicholson mentions how Dunne "quit his job at the uni to take over the Lass".
"If he didn't take it on it looked like it was going to be sold to developers," he says.
"That's the type of guy he is - he loves his history, loves building community. He's really good at getting the most out of people, which is nice to have in a business partner."
Barnett still lives upstairs at the Oak. Nicholson says his regulars "are like his family".
"He puts on a $1500 bar tab every Christmas Day for a couple of hours and everyone comes down. He's got the same attitude we have - it's about building community and trying to give something back, not just take, take, take," he says.
"A couple of the regulars weren't overly happy when we came in and started making changes - their main concern was that were going to gentrify the place - but it was either we come along and fix up the place or it gets turned into apartments in three years' time because it closes."
Dunne says their approach to refurbishing the Oak was one of "restoration, not renovation".
"When we took over the lease the ceiling was smoke-stained white, and the carpet in the front bar was ugly and stained. I literally pulled out thousands of staples from the floor. We sanded and polished the original wooden floors and repurposed some of the timber."
Nicholson says the walls of the front bar were "a gross pale green colour" and many of the original features had been covered with plywood. Pulling that plywood down in the front bar and "seeing what was under there" dictated what the pair did with the space.
"We've brought it back to a 1920s vibe, a little bit art deco but not in your face, just a few small features," he says.
Nicholson crafted the Oak's new menu, "pulling recipes from my restaurant that I had in Melbourne, and from my back catalogue".
"My head chef at the Oak is Max Crawford. He's from the UK and fairly new to town. Even if I'd looked for five years to find someone in line with how I cook, I couldn't have found anyone more suitable than Max."
He describes the menu at the Oak as "tidy pub food".
"There's a few tight snacks at the top, freshly shucked oysters, steak tartare, classic wine bar snacks and fresh fish straight from the wholesale seller which keeps it affordable for the customer."
The menu is the familiar done well. Very well. I tried the oysters, the Ortiz anchovy with creme fraiche and potato; the 200-gram grain-fed rump-cap with garlic butter and baby chats; the half roast chicken with herb salad and chicken jus; the sourdough with butter; and the Ortiz tinned sardines, served in the tin and with a side of toast, and topped with gremolata.
The chicken is prepared and cooked to order, and you can tell. It was so moist. Every sauce and seasoning was spot on and the prices reasonable. You can also order a chicken schnitzel ($23), grilled market fish ($32) and The Oak burger ($17).
Nicholson grew up in Warnambool, moved to Melbourne and has worked at the likes of Albert St Food & Wine and Rockpool Bar and Grill. He sold his restaurant (Jamsheed Bar and Restaurant) to his brother Zac (also a chef) before moving to Newcastle.
"I love it up here. I can't see myself moving any time soon," Nicholson says.
"One thing I miss about living in Melbourne - and there's not many things I do miss - is being able to walk into a pub, not pay anything to get in, and there's a sick local band playing on stage. You can stumble onto some of the best music.
"Newcastle has a great little music scene as well. There are always new bands popping up, and at the Oak we'd like to support them in some way, so we're putting on live local music every Saturday, no cover charge."