In the end it was a quiet death. The gastropub slipped into obsolescence with no laments for truffled mash or over-reduced jus following it. Good, I say. Pubs are pubs. Hold the gastro, preserve the atmosphere, cook good, pubby, food. Then leave it alone.
Want to see it in action? Go to The Old Fitz. Get the chip butty, split a rissole sandwich, order a pie for two. Yes the chef has cooked at Sepia, Quay and The Ledbury. But Nicholas Hill is working within the lines, applying restaurant skill to dishes with a pub soul backed up by owners who have decided to leave well enough alone. That means letting him do his thing, and making minimal changes to a venue that's been serving the good people of Woolloomooloo for 160 years.
Hill's thing could be called British pub food with an occasional Australian sensibility. He owes some allegiance to the book of St John in the way he folds raw beef through beef dripping to serve on toast, or how he's bought his supplier out of marrow bones to use as pie chimneys or vessels for the horseradish cream that comes with Sunday roast (beef, all the trimmings). But he also owes it to a mood taken from the kinds of retro Australian cookbooks one might find scouring the antiques shop in a country town.
See the rissole sandwich, or the doilies slipped under everything from toasts to chicken-Kiev fritters. The brief when Hill started in March was to play the classics and run a specials board. But even his classics are a step up from what his bosses (who also run The George and The Duke of Enmore) might have hoped for. His burger? Toasted tank loaf sandwiching a patty of minced beef (the rissole) flavoured with mustard, tomato sauce, parsley and dripping topped with oak lettuce, beetroot and onion chutney, and cheddar. Yes.
His schnitzel? In a crumb seasoned with chicken salt shook up with paprika and savoury shio kombu. Salty, but smart.
The trick with The Fitz has been adding to the Old rather than replacing it. Keep the craggy walls, keep the craggy locals who smoke darts at the tables out front and sink schooners of Reschs in the corners, who bring their dogs and slip out at the ring of a bell for a show in the downstairs theatre.
The renovations, meanwhile, are sympathetic. A new floor behind the bar, a better kitchen. They even kept the flow trough. There's a lick of paint upstairs to go with the country-house paraphernalia, and the dartboard and neon coffee sign decorate the bar with the rest of the bric-a-brac.
Drinks take the same line. A roster of interesting but not totally outré ales, bitters, stouts and sours complement your VBs and Guinnesses, while 10 "deluxe wines" are the only bottles over $55. Joel Amos – founder of drinks purveyor DRNKS – is a co-owner, and he's stacked the deluxe blackboard with the natural stuff he favours. Ochota Barrels grenache in the light-red stakes; vibrant Si Vintners cab-sav in the heavier stakes; magnums of the fabulous Serragghia Riserva Paradiso in the ultra-rare stakes. If buying a $450 magnum from a guy in a baseball cap isn't underselling I don't know what is.
Hill's specials also complement the regulars, with attention to seasonality. I've been warmed on a winter's day by the sauce Foyot – that is Béarnaise enriched (enriched!) with veal glace – that spills from a marrow bone into a crisp-shelled veal and pig's-trotter pie. I've marvelled at the sweet flakiness of a burnt-onion flan served with a slab of goat's cheese and fines herbes on a spring evening.
On its own, the chip butty comprises thick golden chips, sliced white, and a dish of butter, but the sides are the draw: a fried egg; bacon bits; mushy peas. Good orders, but if the curry sauce is on (a Keen's base, dressed with curry leaves) there's no better choice.
Hill's scope is wide enough for him to source dry-aged dairy cow and put it on as a special for two with "Café de Fitz" butter (an anchovy-herb number, with bone marrow) and dripping gravy. If I was being picky – and $65 means you can be – I'd want the gravy on the side, the butter melting over, the flesh seasoned more astutely. But what a piece of beef.
Desserts, such as ice-cream dribbled with olive oil and topped with jam toast, are short and sharp. But what's sharper is the vision, led by a talented chef who's ably exploring the bounds of his role without a hint of pretension. Step in, order at the bar, and see it in action.