Australia’s pub revolution

Forget the pokies and cookie-cutter menus: historic pubs and hotels around Australia are amid a social revolution.

Eltham Hotel, NSW

The pubs of Australia have gone through a lot. The six o’clock swill. The christenings. The wakes. The rock gigs in the back room. Drinks in between the ceremony and the reception. The footy grand final wins and grand final losses. The wedges with sweet chilli and sour cream era. A global pandemic. But despite what life throws at them, Aussie pubs persevere, twisting and turning and adapting to better reflect and serve their communities.

As Australia prepares for life post-Covid, new-generation publicans have been rethinking both the role and potential of the pub. What if instead of poker machines, you created opportunities for musicians? What if you said no to multinational breweries, but yes to local brewers and vignerons? What if you expanded the definition of pub grub to include more veg and local ingredients among the usual deep-fried suspects? In other words: what if you took all the things punters wanted on a night out, but offered them in a relaxed, deformalised setting? You’d probably come up with a place like Tom McHugo’s Hobart Hotel.

Although the hotel was built in 1842, its current chapter began in 2016 when husband and wife Tom Westcott and Whitney Ball Westcott took over. With the new ownership, the taps were switched (back) to Tassie beer, the cellar was bulked out with organically farmed wines, and local was the kitchen’s new watchword. The Westcotts implemented the values they lived by both professionally and personally.

Food at Scenic Hotel, SA

“We didn’t want to make allowances for the fact that it was a pub, but we didn’t want to meet the expectations of what a pub was, especially with the food and beverage offering,” says Ball Westcott. “We believe in sustainable, local and making good food accessible to everybody.” So while the menu includes a chicken parmy, there’s also grilled sugarloaf cabbage with kefir cheese and zhoug, plus a potato curry puff with pickled lemon chutney. Growers’ names such as Fat Carrot Farm and Rockytop are peppered throughout the menu while the prices are sharp.

“We have a good following among the hospo community because they know where we get our food from,” says Westcott. “Whether you’re a producer, farmer, cook or a kitchen hand, you can come in and still eat well and not have to suffer through shit takeaway.”

Scenic Hotel, SA

Accessibility is also key for Dylan Marshall, chef at The Scenic Hotel in the Adelaide Hills and a man adept at coaxing maximum flavour from ingredients. As the situation demands, he can play it straight – vivid beets with crushed hazelnuts and lentils, say – as well as inject humour: his steak tartare in a packet of Smith’s chips is an Instagram hit.

“My grandmother and grandfather wouldn’t eat raw beef at a restaurant,” says Marshall, a former Andrew McConnell chef who’s worked at London bars Leroy and The Laughing Heart. “But if it was served in a bag of chips, they’d give it a go.”

Built in 1869, the Scenic was a regular pitstop for local farmers heading to Adelaide to sell at the markets. Farmers still swing past, although nowadays, the producers are local winemakers dropping off cases, biodynamic vegetable growers Ngeringa, and Duncan Reid of Piccadilly bakery Brid delivering sourdough. Buying local isn’t the only way Scenic partners Matilda Bryson, Alistair Wells, Jay Marinis, Jon Zagler and Enoch Yates support their community: the hotel hosts food and wine festivals and is establishing a garden that will supply the pub while offering horticultural therapy and mental health support to marginalised communities.

It’s telling that new-wave pubs – and forward-thinking hospitality venues – are opening in regional areas. For cooks that value provenance, being in the country connects them to produce and producers in a way that city chefs can only dream of. Take the White Star Hotel in Albany, Western Australia. Not only does the menu highlight Great Southern ingredients such as local sardines, herring and veg grown by Jocelyn and Andrew Bathgate of Bathgate Farm: the White Star is one of the few Aussie pubs serving bread and pasta made from flour that its bakers mill themselves from locally grown, single variety wheat. But as important as looking after local producers is, looking after the locals is equally crucial.

“It’s nice to have somewhere to go after hours other than the club,” says Rhiannon Moon, one of the White Star’s new owners. Together with her partner Sam Dawson and Kate Marwick of Emu Point Cafe, Moon reopened the 112-year-old hotel in April to create a space for all: from young families and rusted-on bar flies to members of community group Albany Pride that hosts monthly drinks at the pub. “It’s been important for us to create something for Albany’s changing community and demographics.”

Eltham Hotel owners Matt Rabbidge (left), Julia Ashwood (middle) and Luke Sullivan (right)

Matt Rabbidge and Luke Sullivan felt there was scope for something community-minded in Eltham, a pocket of Northern Rivers greenery between Bangalow and Lismore. In late 2019, the duo began to transform the Eltham Hotel into their idea of what a modern-day local pub should be.

Three years on and the Eltham circa 2022 is an instantly likeable prospect fusing past and present. Tap beers include a house dark ale and mid-strength options; the wine list runs from “classic shiraz” to wild natural wines; and the menu from ex-Gimlet chef Tim Goegan boasts albacore tuna rillettes and “strange flavour” Jerusalem artichokes alongside steak sandwiches, fish and chips and other pub standards. Julia Ashwood, journalist and Rabbidge’s wife, led the tasteful renovation of the upstairs rooms, while regional theatre company Norpa recently finished a residency at the hotel. Who says you can’t teach an old pub new tricks?

“There’s something special about old buildings and the history in their walls,” says Rabbidge. “It’s great to see young operators across Australia that are part of this pub renaissance that’s not about pokie machines, but good food, drink and music. Pubs were called pubs for a reason. They were a public house. They were spaces for everyone.”

Upstairs accommodation at the Eltham Hotel, NSW

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