Step inside: The Imperial In Erskineville

September 17th, 2020 - by Brad Gillespie

This legendary inner-west watering hole started has since satisfied the thirst of local tradies, celebrated drag in all its glory, played a role in a famous Aussie movie – and is still going strong as the inclusive, lovingly restored Drag’n’Dine.

Join us as we delve into the history and the stories of the much-loved Impy, at 35 Erskineville Road.

The early years of The Imperial

The Imperial is near impossible to miss, located prominently on the corner of Union Street and Erskineville Road and retaining many of its period features.

The land was originally bought in 1881 and used by market gardeners, brick makers and tanners – and it wasn’t until 1940 that The Imperial hotel was designed by architect Virgil D. Cizzio in an Interwar Functionalist Style, with a central octagonal tower leading to a roof deck. Back then, it had a public bar, ladies lounge and saloon bar and was a popular hang-out for the increasingly multicultural Erskineville locals.

Friendship, fun and movie fame

Things changed for The Imperial in 1983, when entrepreneur, bar owner and long-time LGBT supporter, Dawn O’Donnell, snapped it up and set about making it a safe space to ‘come out’. In 1993, the building hit the big time: its front bar featured in the opening and closing scenes of Aussie movie, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

Dressed in drag, actors Hugo Weaving and Guy Pearce lip-synced on the top of the bar to the song ‘I’ve Never Been To Me’ and the small-budget film became a worldwide smash – forever placing The Imperial and Sydney’s colourful queer scene on the map.

Youtube video clip from Priscilla Queen Of The Desert

There have been several facelifts over the years, but mainly on the interiors – and the most recent was in 2016. Millions were spent to create two kitchens, a ‘quirky’ restaurant, courtyard dining area and a cocktail lounge – and the renovation celebrates the building’s art-deco heritage, retro vibe and dynamic drag show history. Today, it’s a venue famous for being friendly, inclusive and welcoming to punters from all walks of life. And it still plays a very important role for the LGBTI community.

Step inside the den of drag and debauchery

The drag scene has been front and centre at The Imperial for the past 40 years – in fact, Sydney’s best queens still regularly strut their stuff on stage, and you’re more than welcome to drink, dance, drag’n’dine at the aptly named restaurant Priscilla’s on the ground floor.

Meeting people and making friends is what The Basement is all about – it is, The Imperial states, a ‘sanctuary of self-expression’. Today the space hosts live drag and performance art, live music, DJ nights and more, and is ‘made to tickle imaginations and ignite passions’. Not surprising, really: punters who partied here in the 80s and early 90s, like celebrated DJ Jonny Seymour, remember the Basement had a room full of bathtubs, a motorcycle, and much more. Oh, if these walls could talk!

The newly opened rooftop courtyard, Imperial UP!, is all about good Italian food, cocktail culture and … getting up to no good, as The Imperial clearly encourages on its website.

In closing…

The inner west is full of fantastic nightlife, but The Imperial is really one of the most memorable and fun nights out you’ll have. It’s a great place to have a bite, sip a cocktail named after a drag queen, watch a flamboyant, funny show or two – and make some new friends.

If you’d like to find out more about our eclectic area and what else it has to offer new and existing locals, please don’t hesitate to get in touch – we’d love to chat to you.

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