At the Walkabout pub in the Temple district of London, the busiest night of the week is Monday: Brazilian night. Two large Australian flags hang above the bouncers at the entrance ropes, and a road sign by the till reads “NO WORRIES. Official motto of Australians.” A faux-rustic sign points left to the Beach Club, but the party is to the right: the main room is populated almost exclusively by dark-haired, well-groomed South Americans.
This is the last Walkabout in London. Once there were seven of the Australian-themed pubs, in Shepherd’s Bush, Islington, Covent Garden, West Hampstead, Shoe Lane and on Shaftesbury Avenue. There used to be 50 across the UK. The number had fallen to 22 by early 2015, after which the parent company – newly taken over by a venture capital firm – opened a few more in towns like the West Midlands’ Solihull and Lichfield. By design or default, Walkabouts historically acted as a kitsch refuge for Australian backpackers, expats, and Brits attracted to the corrugated-iron laddishness. The new Walkabouts trade more as sleek sports bars with VIP areas.
The Walkabout Temple hasn’t changed much in its 13 years, although just inside the entrance is a coffee bar, tacked on as if to acknowledge that Australians in London are now as likely to be pouring piccolos in Shoreditch as they are pulling pints in Earls Court. I pay a visit one lunchtime. The concession is clad in weathered timber and sits below three shoulder-to-shoulder flat-screen TVs. The coffee menu, listed under “Hotties”, includes the flat white as well as the Americano (long black) and the espresso (short). Declaring my nationality, I ask for a short black.
The waitress, Tessa, who’s from Melbourne, almost smiles. “It’s half price today, so it’s 90 cents.”
I wait at a booth where a koala road sign is stamped into a thick unmovable table. Like all the other booths, it has its own flat-screen TV. There are four more TVs above the bar itself, three of which are showing ball sports. Silhouettes of surfers bookend the bar. There are Australian flags and Wallabies bunting everywhere.
Foster’s, the drop bear of Australian beverage brands, has pride of place in the centre of the beer taps. Bottles of VB and Pure Blonde are stacked nearby, waiting to be refrigerated.
This Walkabout can hold 900 punters, but the cavernous floor is mostly empty apart from staff. There are scatterings of men in short-sleeved business shirts and workers from a nearby construction site, sitting in the gloom and chatting under a soundtrack of soft pop-rock.
Gemma Andrews and Daniel Milway are sitting quietly at a small table, drinking Cokes. Originally from Britain, they’re now Sydneysiders and are back visiting family. They’re on stop five of a Circle Line pub crawl, the antipodean tradition of visiting a bar at each of the stations on the Underground line that loops around the city.
Andrews says the Walkabout is a little slice of home. “It’s good to have that.” At the very least, she’s going to have a Bundy before she goes.
Milway is less generous. “It’s got the odd few familiar names, the few familiar brands, but nah. It’s definitely a theme bar,” he says.
Still, Tessa insists a lot of Aussie expats and tourists come in here. “Especially if they’ve been living here for a while and they want a chicken parmigiana or something.”
Chicken parmigiana, tucked away in a menu of Bondi fish burgers and kangaroo steaks, is the pub’s most ordered meal. “Yeah, we love our chicken parmigiana,” says Tessa. It’s not easy to find it in London.
Tessa is here on a working visa. She started out as one of the cheerleaders the Walkabout hires for broadcasts of big live-sport events. It’s a multinational team – Spaniards, Kiwis, Poles – which she likes. Only 30% of the Temple staff are Australian.
Tessa surveys the near empty bar. It does feel like home, she reckons, but there are some subtle distinctions.
“See how we’ve got two slot machines over there?” She points to two pokies glowing in the dark. “In Australia, we’ve got, like, a room attached to our pubs. That’s probably the main difference.”
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