Max Whitby started work washing dishes at the Texas Tavern back in its heydey and then spent years working at the iconic Bourbon and Beefsteak.
He ended up running them both.
Max also managed to have separate careers as a successful stockbroker and well-known racing identity – he owns over 120 racehorses. Last year, I sold his Potts Point apartment in The Villard for $12.5 million.
I recently caught up with Max at Zinc Cafe for a chat about his memories of Potts Point and Kings Cross in the old days.
You’re a well-known Potts Point local and you’ve had an amazingly varied career. How did you end up in Potts Point?
It was 1968. I was from the bush. I was 17 and I’d left school at 14. I came to Sydney to look after my boss’s cattle at the Easter Show.
I had to find my mate Nigel who hadn’t done such a great job of caring for the cattle. He was working in the kitchen at the Texas Tavern. I went to find Nigel, and the chef, Mario, said I couldn’t see him.
So I punched Mario.
Bernie Houghton, the American who owned the Texas Tavern and Bourbon and Beefsteak, said ‘that kid has spunk – give him a job’.
So I started out washing dishes at the Texas Tavern. I became a busboy, a waiter, then worked behind the bar. We worked 12, 14, 16 hour days, sometimes two months without a day off. But the tips were great because of the US clients.
The Texas Tavern had 150 hotel rooms and the Americans came down from Vietnam during the war – thousands of Americans were here in the late 60s and early 70s.
One minute you’d be in the restaurant serving a steak Diane, the next you’d be outside breaking up a rumble, and then you’d be cleaning the toilets. You did everything. It was never dull, and we worked very hard.
I worked with a bunch of Europeans and waiting was a profession for them, not like here. The money was good. I had five suits and 20 shirts – there was was a place called Keith’s Shirts in Potts Point. We were well dressed to say the least.
The Texas Tavern is where the Apollo is now. There’s catacombs under there, built in 1905. It used to be used for opium, allegedly, a long time ago now.
Bernie owned the Texas Tavern and the Bourbon and Beefsteak. Around 1970 we also opened Harpoon Harry’s in the city.
Then the Texas Tavern got caught in the credit squeeze of 1975-6. We sold it. The hotel industry is a fascinating business. I was the licensee and if you’re the licensee you’re like the mayor. It was never ever dull.
Tell us about the old Bourbon and Beefsteak – it’s a bit of an icon right?
The Bourbon was always consistent – nice but naughty. It had a more sophisticated market. It was famous for gig music and big fun. The Sebel was nearby and the famous guests would always come up and jam: Liza Minnelli, Elton John, Cher. They all sang at the Bourbon. It had a great history.
The Bourbon was also famous for its breakfast on the weekend. You’d wait 40-50 minutes for a table and it was renowned for its Bloody Marys. And there were big late nights.
All the winners from the illegal gambling places would always come around and we’d serve lobster and champagne for breakfast. It had a lot of character.
The Bourbon had no front doors for 28 years because we never closed. It was 24-7.
The Bourbon still exists. It’s different, but these guys have done the best job since we sold it. Our place was nice but naughty and safe. No matter where I go around the world people know it. It’s a proud piece of real estate.
What was Bernie Houghton like?
He was a really lovely bloke. I was an orphan so I’d never had parental guidance. My late wife said he taught me to be a man and he let me see the world.
Bernie was great. He was before his time, he brought American food to Australia. He was from Texas and he lived in Elizabeth Bay. He was a bootlegger, restaurateur, entertainer. He knew what you wanted.
Before Bernie passed away he said ‘the Bourbon won’t last too long after I go’. It was a very true statement. The reading of the will was like you see in the movies – there were people hanging out the door.
There’s a bust for him in the fountain park.
What’s changed in the area – for better or for worse?
In the old days, the Cross was bohemian, full of coffee shops, nightlife. It wasn’t always like Underbelly. But it was quite territorial in the old days.
There’s a higher level of violence than there was and I think that relates to surges in particular drugs. You could probably run graphs on it.
There used to be a lot of hotels in the area, now there’s not. It’s more residential. I’ve only lived here since 2012. It was my late wife’s idea to move to Potts Point.
Now there’s lockout laws. I don’t want to sound like a hypocrite but when I came to live here I was happy it was quiet!
A horse walked into the bar one night on New Year’s Eve. They used to block all the streets off and a cowboy came in on a horse. He said, ‘my horse needs a drink’. So for a bit of humour, we let him in.
If the walls could speak you’d also hear about the quality of the international entertainers that were attracted to the Bourbon. It had an international feel about it. We brought Mexican food to Australia at the Texas Tavern. We used to get tortillas flown in from Honolulu, and they’d take three days to arrive.
We did everything on the run, everything at 1,000 miles per hour. The staff were crazy. The customers were crazy. The suburb was crazy.
It was a beautiful time.