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Penny Farthing: A timeless English oasis in Oak Bay’s heart

From John Atkinson’s monthly Behind Bars column
Bartenders Hannah Kennedy-Dault and Elli Ismailzai at Penny Farthing in Oak Bay. (John Atkinson)

The Penny Farthing pub is living proof that the English influence in Oak Bay remains a powerful force.

Named after the classic English bicycle, the ‘Penny’ has been open since 2001, but locals often think it could have been around for 100 years.

Conjoined with the Vis-a-Vis restaurant and owned by the same company, the Penny has a unique place in Victoria’s pub culture, said general manager Sam Watson, 32.

“Owner, Matt MacNeil, moved to Oak Bay in the ‘90s and was inspired by Jack Leonard, who owned a hand-built and original Penny Farthing bike and used to parade it at the Oak Bay Tea Party. They do a big fair down at Willows and Matt thought it was great. Jack was always the ringleader for the procession.

“Matt also noted there was no pub in Oak Bay, and so the Penny Farthing pub was created. It’s also a very English term and we wanted an English pub because there’s a big English influence in Oak Bay.”

MacNeil designed all the decor at VicPubCo’s four venues, the other three being the Bard & Banker, Irish Times and Vis-a-Vis.

“Matt’s eye for detail is unbelievable,” said Watson. “A lot of our stained glass is imported. He designed the chandeliers. He’s very hands-on and talented and built these rooms to look like classic pubs.”

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Watson has been the GM at Penny Farthing for just over four years. He started out at age 19 as a Bard & Banker busboy, then bartended and worked his way up. After two years of managing the Bard & Banker, he got asked to come to Penny Farthing.

Watson’s reign at The Penny began on February 15, 2020, right before COVID-19 struck.

“I worked for a month—and then we had to shut down on St Patrick’s Day, one of our biggest days of the year. Going through that and learning this new way of operating, with new rules and regulations was tough. However, we came out the other side stronger because of it.

“As GM I’ve tried to make the Penny more unique, focusing on it being a neighbourhood pub in a wonderful family-focused community. I also brought that sense of community back. I was born right around the corner and my family knows a lot of people in this area.”

The Penny, run by around 50 full and part-time staff also, not surprisingly, has a lot of regulars—though the tour buses are now coming down Oak Bay Avenue too. They also see a lot of Oak Bay Beach Hotel guests, but overall, Watson describes it as a “locals-based pub”.

Watson says any great bartender has to have people skills. “I could take anyone and show them how to pour a beer. But can you talk to a customer? Are you up-to-date with the hockey playoffs? The NBA playoffs? Current issues?

“Plus, remembering names. That was always my biggest thing — I used to have a little pocket book and I’d just write down people’s names and what they drink. All my bartenders here are fantastic. They keep their relationships with the customers fresh and engaging.”

On the drinks menu at The Penny is the “best tasting Guinness in town”. Plus, a greater focus on beer and wine. For cocktails, the conjoined Vis-a-Vis offers a cocktail list to die for, created by Friday and Saturday night bartender Adam.

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When it comes to signature dishes, there are a few.

“Everyone loves the Stuffed Yorkshires; a mini Yorkshire pudding stuffed with a braised short rib, red wine jus, peas and a little bit of horseradish (sauce),” Watson said. “The Penny is also famous for its Shrimp and Avocado Salad—and we offer a tasty Chicken Tikka Masala. My chef, Kevin Pinto’s recipe for that is delicious.

“Monday to Friday we also offer Eggs Benedict for $11 up to 11 a.m. The best deal in town. And breakfast can be tough in this town. You can’t throw a rock out of the window without hitting a place that does breakfast.”

Watson said the Penny is different due to its location. “The Irish Times and Bard are both right downtown and will enjoy the crazy summertime cruise ship buzz. We’re not like that. We’re consistent all year and enjoy it.

“In the wintertime, all three of our pubs are known as the places to be. We have four fireplaces here, the fire’s crackling, you’re drinking the best pint of Guinness, I think the Penny is so cozy. And customers say the same.”

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The classic English bicycle from which neighbourhood pub Penny Farthing gets its name. (John Atkinson)