When I put the words “travelling in Australia” in my mind and shake them up to conjure an image, I end up with a quarter-acre stretch of lawn leading up to a slouching weatherboard homestead with a thick verandah shading wooden tables and chairs. My kids are running on the lawn with pot-glasses full of raspberry lemonade, only leaving the green sea to scramble into the bushes and hunt for lizards. I’m nursing a cloudy ale, the glass frosty and dewed. Magpies and bellbirds duet in the gum trees. It’s only the lunch stop on a long journey, and yet it’s the part of the day that always returns afterwards. Aussie pubs will always find a place in your mind and your heart.
A journey around Australia MUST involve several pubs. Ignoring them is dodging our culture, and even teetotallers should get themselves in for a lemon lime and bitters and a pie and chips. The style of the pub is a reflection on the community that surrounds it. They are often well over a hundred years old, and besides the Police Station and the Post Office, probably the only continually running business in most country towns. They support local business and produce, and they are filled with the locals after a hard day’s work. Talk to the publican, eat the local grub (that’s Aussie for food, not a worm), and before you know it, you’ve got a true taste of the region.
Things you need to know before entering the Aussie Country Pub
Sure, it seems to be alive, but don’t show your fear – it’s a dead giveaway that you’re a tourist. It’s usually a deep coloured carpet with an obscure or hideous pattern. This can be either to disguise the many scorch marks from stamped out cigarettes and beer stains, or the pattern may be in fact the marks themselves, somehow woven in symmetry. It will have a smell that is hard to put a finger on – something that starts out disgracefully, but somehow winds its way into your subconscious in the section of pleasant memories – you will love it forevermore.
The Publican doesn’t need to like you, but it helps.
Usually it’s an oldish dude behind the bar with a beard to hide the lines of fatigue and worry. This bloke will have more stories to tell than the walls of Alcatraz, but he’ll keep them all in. He’ll be stern, but probably have a heart of gold. He’ll be rough around the edges, but only because he has had to be. He’ll know your name before you know his. He stays silent at most times. Drinks can be ordered with a nod of the head – eyes to the tap and to the empty glass in front of you. Those who drink often will put a lobster (a $20 note) on the bar upon entering, and the publican will simply take each $2.80 as he needs it. No tip. No talk. He likes pretty girls, but not in a creepy way. They brighten his day, and that of the line of old drunks that fence him in daily at the bar. He knows EVERYTHING about the area. If he likes you, he’ll lead you in the right direction.
There are three types of locals you don’t want to offend. The first is the neighbourhood drunk who has been sitting at the best seat in the bar since 10am. The publican will roll his eyes every time the soak looks down into his beer and starts telling the same old tale. But it’s not your standard roll of the eyes – the publican is dissapointed that he has watched one of his best mates fall into alcoholism and drag his life into the dirt. He’s thinking about what might have been. The second is a bunch of raucus and smelly blokes who stamp in at 5:15 as if they own the place. They do. They’ve just finished work, and they’re in every day for a quick brew before they head home to the missus. They keep the bar afloat. The third local is a Blue Heeler named Bruce. He’ll drink and eat for free, and will probably roam untethered. Don’t worry though, he’s an affable Aussie just like his owner, and the only living thing he nips is a lazy sheep’s ankle. And metrosexuals.
The names of pubs can be a guide to the style, but not usually.
Pubs are usually named by location. The Stanley Pub is in Stanley. The Portesa Hotel in Portsea. But every now and then, you will get a Merrijig pub that is in Port Fairy, not Merrijig (which is on the other side of the state). Sometimes, when there is a second pub in town, it will take a name for the sake of regality in the old dart – The Royal, Regent, the Palace, the Prince Albert, The Great Britain, or maybe something else equally glorious –the Grand perhaps. Usually these establishments are far from Royal or Grand. If there’s already a town-named hotel and a regal establishment, then economy or community might play a part – the Commercial, the Post Office Hotel, the Royal Mail, the Railway, the Exchange, The Terminus. These pubs usually started out as working class watering holes, and can sometimes be found in slightly dodgy areas. But often they make the best bangers and mash in town, and nearly always have the coldest beer.
Entertainment can involve sticking your whole salary bit by bit in a tiny hole just to see some flashing lights.
Pokies are all over. You might call them slot machines, casinos, machinations of the Devil. Unfortunately you’ll find many pubs will have a room dedicated to them, because they are the only thing that keeps the hotel in the black. If there’s no Pokies room, there may be a TAB, which is betting, usually horses, but for anything really. Gastro-pubs seem to be able to survive in the main without gambling, and there is the odd pub that will have live music. A couple are listed below.
What to drink
Usually pubs are about a brew, and aussies in the main prefer an ice-cold lager. There are of course the standard Aussie pours, and Carlton Draft or Coopers Sparkling Ale are usually the best cheapies, with Boags or James Squire a step up from that (I love a bit of Coopers Pale). If you want to spend some more, try something by a local craft brewer. There are more of these cropping up all the time, and so it’s hard to give you a list. They will usually be the ones with crazy names like “Dogbolter”, “Moo Brew” and “Fat Yak”. Cider and Perry are increasing in popularity, particularly from artisanal producers. You’ll also find some great pear cider and even some very complex numbers made in the Methode Champenoise.
Never order the house wine. This usually comes from a 20L bag-in-box (we call it a ‘cask’ in Australia, but it shares little resemblance with oak barrels except it’s ability to store booze.) under the counter. It will be horrid. If there is a “Wine of the month” laminated card on the table, ignore that too – it’s probably just something mainstream they got a good deal on, or old trash they’re trying to get rid of. If you get offered a proper wine list or there’s a blackboard with at least eight wines on it, that means you’ll probably get something good. Try and stick with local if in the Southern states, or the south of Queensland – you’ll probably try something quite interesting. Don’t ever drink wine made in Darwin.
Spirits and liqueurs
Spirits in Aussie pubs are usually pretty basic. If you’re a bloke, and go into a bar full of big truckies in singlets, don’t even think of ordering a Campari – it just screams cityboy, and trust me, that’s a dirty word. Only finer establishments will have anything much more than a basic pour range (Vodka, Gin, Scotch, Bundy [fairly noxious Australian dark rum], Bacardi and Bourbon) and a couple of premium dark spirits. If there’s a bottle crème de cassis on the shelf, it’s probably been there for six years, and best avoided. If the venue is classy enough to have a winelist, you’ll probably be able to get some basic cocktails too. If you want anything fancy though, get out of the pub and go to a bar full of manicures and dance music.
I know, Aussies are a bunch of drunks, but we do have children, a Nana who can’t handle anything but a thimble of Sherry at Christmas, and the odd mate who has given up the drink for health or God. Raspberry lemonade is the drink of choice for kids, lemon lime and bitters or an OJ for Nan, and a ginger ale (we call it Dry Ginger) for those who want to join in and look like they are drinking beer when they are not. It’s best not to order a coffee in a basic pub – a cuppa tea is a better bet, as an outback bartender thinks an espresso is a fast Italian train. Gastro pubs probably make a decent one though. Juices usually come out of the bottle, and most simple pubs will only have orange juice – pineapple if you’re lucky.
What to eat
Standard country pubs:
Only order a counter meal at a pub that smells like stale beer, and stick with the basics. Order at the bar, pay, and don’t forget your “cuttelry” (that’s aussie for cutlery) which will be tightly wrapped in the smallest napkin imaginable.
- Chicken Parmigiana is the fare of the locals, and most pubs will have a pot and parma deal.
- Have steak on steak night and pie on pie night.
- Fish and chips and grilled of barbecued fish (but only near a nice strip of water)
- Never EVER order the curry, unless you know there’s an Asian origin chef in the kitchen.
- Avoid the salad bar (hygiene issues), and in fact anything that resembles a fruit or vegetable except chips and tomato sauce (and don’t call it Ketchup).
In a gastro-pub, you’ll probably get table service, unless they have a ‘front bar’ and a dining room, and you’re sitting in the bar section. Here, you can branch out.
- Home smoked goodies, even salmon in the outback can be super.
- Seafood (again, preferably near water) – oysters (Tassie Pacific, Sydney Rock and Coffin Bay are the three famous ones), Shellfish (Look out for Moreton Bay bugs, Marron and Yabbies) and fish (King George Whiting, Wild Barramundi and Coral Trout should not be missed)
- Anything with mash – whether it be potato, celeriac or champ is a guaranteed stodgy winner.
- Go out of your comfort zone and order offal or cheap cuts. It could be the best ox tongue, lamb neck or pig’s trotter you may ever have. Corned beef is another old-school goodie.
- Make sure you have pudding – something steamed and covered in gooey sauce – or maybe a pav (Pavlova). Tradition demands you chase sweeties down with a Rutherglen Muscat (like port but lighter, sweeter and better).
What to look for in a pub:
In Summer, look for pubs with verandas, beer gardens and balconies. The best seats are in the open under the baking Aussie sun. You’ll know when you find a good one because you can’t get a table. Drink a G&T at the bar while you wait at the bar for a more substantial perch. Later you can and feed the magpies strips of liver and bacon off your plate of offal if you don’t dig it. At dusk, if you’re far enough out of the metropolis and the lawn is large enough, you might even get some roos. Be happy with your surrounding of fauna, but watch out for drop bears 😉
In winter, look for a smaller pub, or one of those ones with Alice-in-Wonderland scalings, that have a tiny door, then open into a series of snug rooms. Solid brick is best to keep the cold out, but don’t knock back an old weatherboard one. An open fire is a must, accompanied by magenta coloured carpet or floorboards polished with nothing but age. You’ll need a sweeping bar – redgum, mahogany or marble, so you can hole up with the publican over a glass of red to sporadically recover from overheating at your table near the fire. And you’ll need pies on the menu. Definitely.
Aussie country pubs worth the detour:
A little heavy on the recommendations for Victoria from me, as that’s my home state, maybe commenters can help me out with some extras around other parts of Australia? All pubs are linked.
- Stanley Pub A great winter pub in Northern Victoria just out of Beechworth, surrounded by small farms, chestnut and apple orchards. Lovely food, very regional.
- The Provenance Ok – not really a pub, but in there because its century-and-more old bank bones make it look just like a corner pub. A bit. It’s really so much better than a pub. But its in the country, it’s got that Aussie atmosphere, and it’s so very, very special.
- Royal Mail Hotel Dunkeld I’ve driven two hours out of my way and back again to this place. It’s in Western Victoria, and a good stop from Melbourne to Adelaide. Incredible Art deco style, lovely outdoors and in. Plush accommodation and fancy food and wine.
- All Nations Hotel Alright, it’s in Melbourne, but behaves like a country pub. Great simple pub food, and perfect for a winter’s day when you want to escape the drear of the city and get back to some good Aussie roots.
- Portsea Hotel There are a couple along the tip of the Mornington Peninsular, but this is the one with the view and the beer garden that is quite simply unparallelled. Food is up and down and priced for the millionaire neighbourhood, but it’s still definitely worth a stop.
- Merrijig inn Near the wharf, so you can grab a little view, then pop in for a pot (open after 4pm). But you won’t just want to drink beer – serious modern country gourmet grub, yet completely unpretentious. Super spot. Winter pub, but then again, Port Fairy’s nearly always pretty grim.
- The Tinamba Hotel In Gippsland, a good half-way stop to Mallacoota. New owners in 2009 who are taking a fairly big step towards putting this little place on the map. Great verandah. Hotel food garden and an emphasis on Gippsland produce.
- The Cosmopolitan Hotel You’ll find this in Trentham, not far from beautiful Daylesford (Where you should eat at the Lake House, which is not a pub, but needs to be recommended while I’m on the topic). Cleverly restored weatherboard inn, still gorgeously rustic and Aussie. Great garden, and terrific local food.
- Mountain View hotel This really is a lovely place, recently refurbished and reopened by the Pizzinis, makers of some of my favourite King Valley wines. Super menu, divine beer garden. Gourmet and well worth the detour. Whitfield, Central Victoria.
- The Bridgewater Inn This pub is up in the green hills behind Adelaide, and is a creek-side gem with a fairytale ambiance. We had a good lunch, but reviews seem to suggest it’s a bit hit and miss.
- The Prairie Hotel Classic victorian era hotel with a stripped corrugated verandah. But it’s not just about the looks. This is serious food, with a heavy weight on native Australian produce – a little bush tucker if you will. Fab place. Outback for sure, Flinders Ranges.
- The Penneshaw Hotel On Kangaroo Island, facing Australia – they boast this is the only place in the world you can sit and have a beer while looking over water at mainland Australia. Great pub food with a local twist. Lovely terrace.
- Mundaring Weir Hotel On the outskirts of Perth, this is a classic pub with super architecture and an outdoor amphitheatre, which, if it’s not full of an audience watching an aussie singing legend, then it’s full of plastic chairs and tables and appreciative diners. Basic pub food with the occasional spit roast.
- Settlers Tavern Set in one of my favourite winegrowing regions in OZ. Great verandah, some seriously good and yet uncomplicated food, and one of the best pub winelists in Australia.
- The Nindigully Pub Another Outback pub, on a river (the Moonie), in a dry, dry area. One of the oldest pubs in Queensland. Good counter meals and lovely outdoor area, where camping is also allowed. Has a stack of akubra hats on the walls just to emphasis cowboy status, although they painted the pub pink (very un-cowboy) to raise funds for the McGrath foundation (breast cancer) in June 2012
- St Bernards Hotel This is on Mount Tamborine, in the hinterland behind the Gold coast, and a decent place to escape the slam-bam nature of Surfers Paradise. Lovely views and a diverse menu.
- The Appollonian You know the image I painted earlier – that’s this pub. One of my all-time favourites. It’s in the in the heavily treed lake-side district just north of Noosa on the Sunshine Coast. Incredibly charismatic place with simple food and a supreme atmosphere.
- The Rosevale Retreat Out the back of the Gold Coast and Ipswitch, you’ll find this quirky old charmer. Good traditional food and beer out of a barrel (yes, a wooden one)
- Hotel Brunswick Stunning 1940s deco revival style hotel complete with flame tree in the quickly growing beachside area between Byron Bay and the Queensland border. Terrific garden. At this stage simple but good pub fare, with some lovely seafood.
- Tilpa Hotel – literally out “back o’ Bourke” (this expression referring to an inland town in NSW is the origin of the term “Outback”), made entirely of corrugated iron and timber and sitting somehow still standing on a floodplain after 130 + years. Wall graffiti encouraged. Go for the stories rather than the food.
- The Patonga Hotel You’ll find one of the best beer gardens in the world here, just north of Sydney. Has a reputation for slow service though, so maybe just stop for a drink and a packet of chips.
- The Tathra Hotel On a gorgeous strip of NSW south coast, a classic old hotel with plenty of great live music and a young feel. Food is basic, but the view is superb – over the lawns then the cliff and then the ocean – all the way to South America.
- Rosevears Waterfront Tavern A good value waterfront pub on the Tamar River, not far from Launceston. Nice range of food – both stodgy and light, and some creative pizza toppings.
- Weldborough Hotel Also a microbrewery, the weldborough concentrates more on the drink than the food, but it’s good enough, simple pub food. It’s good winter and summer, with a sweet beer garden, yet a cosy indoor feel. In a beautiful part of the country, not far from St Helens and the Bay of Fires.
Glossary of terms
And finally, I give you a brief dictionary that might be of some use…
- Pot – a glass of beer (about half a pint) in Victoria, also called a “middy” in NSW and a “schooner” in SA
- Schooner – a glass of beer just over the size of a beer can (bigger than a pot). Mainly in NSW/QLD – ask for it elsewhere, and you’ll probably get a pot.
- Jug – about a litre of beer served with a couple of pot glasses
- Glass – a very small glass of beer, only ordered by old men with no money and silly women. In some states, you might want to ask for a “pony” or “butcher”
- Parmy – Crumbed chicken or veal fillet topped with napoli and melted cheese – sometimes with a slice of ham
- Sanger – a sandwich. Steak Sangers are great, especially with onions and beetroot.
- Lamb’s fry – lamb’s liver. Usually served with bacon and gravy.
- Beer batter – standard fish and chips batter made lighter with a slug of beer to bubble it up.
- Banger – a sausage. Also called a “mystery bag” or a “snag”
- Mash – mashed potato, usually served with bangers.
- Smash – coarse mash of either browned, fried or baked potatoes, with or without skin.
- Yabby – also known as a Marron – freshwater cray, quite small. Delicious.
- Tucker – food
- Bush Tucker – hunter gatherer true blue aussie grub. May involve eating invertebrates.
- Pub Grub – no, it’s not a sleezy worm in the corner or a dirty bus-boy. This is food.
- Gastro Pub – fairly stupid universal name referring to a pub with astonishingly good food.
- Blue/Bluey – a red head, a grey dog or an argument.
- Bottle-O – the liquor store attached to the pub
- Public Bar/Front Bar – where counter meals are served
- Counter meal – typically eaten or at least ordered at the bar. Usually simple fare served with chips.
- Dead horse – tomato sauce/ketchup
- Barra – Barramundi. Good fish. Order it.
- Plonk/Piss/Turps – alcohol
- Stubby – a 375ml bottle of beer. Put it in a “stubby holder” to keep it cool.
Please note – most of the photos here are not my own, but come from media galleries on said hotel sites. As I’ve linked the pubs already, I have not given credit on individual photos – please let me know if you would like to have credit given to the photographer.