A global pandemic was never going to shut the Royal Oak for long.
The South Street pub, which is older than this newspaper, threw its doors open on Wednesday after publicans John and Karen Turner took a quick breather.
By lunchtime on Wednesday, the phone was ringing off the hook as people frantically tried to get a booking.
The parmas, some say among the best in town, are in high demand.
Suppliers dropped in with boxes of chips, John swivelling from the bar to let people in then picking up the phone again for a quick chat, gently telling the regulars they were booked out until Saturday so far.
The pub has had its ups and downs - recently, it was put on the market, but an agreement fell through just before the pandemic crisis took off.
It's still up for sale, through expressions of interest, and who wouldn't be interested in running one of the last neighbourhood pubs still thriving in central Ballarat?
John and Karen took over in 1994, returning the interior to a traditional pub after a brief Wild West jaunt left the building renamed Custer's - complete with muskets.
A kitchen renovation led to the famous buffet-style sides, where people could grab cutlets or a parm and load up their plates with salads and mash.
Some first-timers were perhaps a little ambitious with the balancing act required to cart this feast back to the barrel tables.
Sadly this feature might be one of the few aspects that won't return following the pandemic, due to increased health restrictions.
The rest of the place is staying the same - Ballarat Bertie and his mates gaze down at the bar, there's still a mighty pool table, and if you're lucky, you might spy one of the cats lurking in the beer garden.
There's an academic article about the Royal Oak - its author, Dr Helen Dehn, writes "the hotel has become very much a home away from home for many, and is now a valued social asset".
The community that John and Karen built, from darts leagues to punter's clubs to welcoming newcomers with open arms, is proof of that.
"We've made a lot of friends, we're seeing their kids having kids," Karen said.
"We're not gone yet, we're looking forward to seeing all the regulars again."
Throughout its history, the Royal Oak has seen some wild times, as well as a couple of different names.
It first opened in about 1866, and may have been called the Sign of the Castle and Bowl.
The name became the Royal Oak in about 1873.
BONUS GALLERY: The pubs that shaped Ballarat; then and now
Dr Dehn's article notes the pub outlasted a strong temperance movement in the 1880s, a man falling out of a window and dying of his injuries in 1877, and a dalliance with the Ballarat Brewing Company from 1901.
The famous Ballarat Bertie painted on the Raglan Street side is a reproduction of the mural on Lyons Street, John said.
"When we first came here, I took a photo of the one in Lyons Street, which was starting to deteriorate, so in 2007 we decided to have that done to preserve it," he explained.
"We're still getting asked if Ballarat Bitter's going on tap," Karen added.
In 2011, Carlton United Brewery issued 300 kegs of Ballarat Bitter, which was wildly popular in town.
The Royal Oak ploughed through 36 kegs exceptionally quickly.
FROM 2011: Ballarat Bitter kegs released to city pubs
"When we had it on tap, the older ones came in and said 'oh, I think that tastes the same'," John said with a laugh.
There's still hope it could return - there was a strong push in 2013, for example - but for now, Ballarat's answer to Johnnie Walker will retain a shrine at the Royal Oak.
The clientele has included the entire Western Bulldogs football club through the years - Karen's possibly one of the biggest Dogs fans in Ballarat.
"I've had the whole Bulldogs team here, five years in a row in the late '90s - all the boys were up there," she said, grinning.
The Bulldogs fan club still visits the pub on game days, filling the bistro in blue, red, and white scarves.
The decor that does not feature Ballarat Bertie is often aeronautically-inclined - John was a pilot and maintains an interest in flying.
The aeroplanes hanging in the bar made from cans - "the Guinness one is from Port Fairy, the VB one's from Ballarat, and the Bundaberg one is from up there - are underneath postcards and memories from other Royal Oaks around the world.
Karen said she's disappointed to see other community pubs close across Ballarat, as it led to local pool and darts leagues struggling.
"A lot of pubs have gone - when we first came here, we had darts and pool full bore," she said.
"That's sort of gone the other way, it's more food that people are looking for, and that's how times have changed, as more venues have closed.
"I started in my ladies darts team in J or K grade, now we're struggling to fill A, B, and C grades."
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There are some fond memories of the building, as it's been the Turner's family home.
John said he hoped any new buyer would keep the pub running in the same way.
"It's a simple formula - this is what people want," he said.
"People say, why don't you change the menu? I say, well, it works.
"Keep it the way it is, though if they don't want to live upstairs, they could turn it into an AirBnb."
They hope a buyer will be found soon - John said he's not sure what to do when they do retire, but noted Karen is not a fan of caravans.
"We can't do what we used to, we're getting old," he said honestly.
"So we had to make the decision - well, we did, but here we are, still here."
IN THE NEWS:
For the time being, that's good news for the community they've built and supported.
Anyone after a drink will need to book ahead - health restrictions for pubs note any drinks must be bought with meals, and dining space has been reduced in the front bar and bistro.
The pub will be open from 5.30pm to 9pm, Wednesday to Sunday, with lunch on Thursday and Friday.
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