George Calombaris's ever-expanding Greek empire has now reached the city's west.
Hellenic Hotel, the third in the Hellenic branch of the business (following Hellenic Republics in Brunswick and Kew), has opened in the former Hobsons Bay Hotel in Williamstown with little left of the dingy old boozer apart from its attractive façade and veranda.
Inside it's a blaze of blue and white-themed March Studio-designed glory, all polished concrete floors and whitewashed brick walls, greenery in hanging baskets, double-height ceilings broken up with hanging mesh boxes, blond wood and woven cane chairs and comfortably upholstered banquettes. The cute upstairs bar leads onto the wide veranda, surely a future Willie hotspot when the weather turns warm. It's big, bright, brash, noisy and fun - all the things that a modern day taverna should be.
The menu, overseen by head chef Josh Pelham (ex-Estelle Bistro), is fastidiously user-friendly without ever being boring. Yes, there's pide and dips but the dips include Hellenic's trademark taramasalata: white and full of real cod roe flavour that doesn't overdo it with the salt. And, yes, there's little souvlaki (souvlakakia) but one is filled with soft-shell crab, the other with crisp fried lamb's brains and onion rings. Some dishes lean too sweet (I'm looking at you saganaki doused almost beyond recognition with clove-heavy apple sauce), but the balance is otherwise on song. A highlight is the kritharaki, an orzo-like pasta tossed with squid ink, mussels and clams and topped with ribbons of shaved fennel. It's salty and comforting, surely ideal traits for a dish in a Greek-themed bayside pub. You can get a whole or half chicken from the rôtisserie, a couple of decent steaks, a prawn cocktail and the creamy rice pudding dessert risogalo, alongside a smart drinks list that gathers a good range of Greek wine (try a glass of the 2014 Bosinakis Moschofilero), beer and ouzo.
Though the resemblance to its siblings is pretty obvious, the Williamstown outpost is very much its own beast. Most particularly, there's been a conscious effort in both food and décor to emphasise the building's pub roots that's melded cleverly with the taverna spirit. Locals should be feeling very pleased with themselves.
Hellenic Hotel, 28 Ferguson St, Williamstown, Vic, (03) 9393 1000, hellenicrepublic.com.au; open daily noon-late.