Buongiorno, bonjour and “g’day”! (don't you like how they're all the same thing? ~ who knew Australian vernacular was so cosmopolitan???).

Also, "a good day to you, sir/maam" for our American pals, "Ni Hao" to China, and "Здравствуй" to our Russian comrades, "etcetera etcetera and so forth"... (for Yul Brynner).

It’s your old pal Kit (Christof) Fennessy here. I've been writing this blog with your help for ten years, and there's over a hundred and fifty recipes, restaurant reviews of Australia and around the world, and general gourmet articles in these pages for you to fritter away your idle hours on.

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Now, what's on the bill of fare today?

Monday, March 27, 2017

A Melbourne Pub Crawl

Philosophy, a Pub Crawl Map, 13 pubs reviewed, with a  further 15 suggestions...

If you are reading this in the US of A (or anywhere else for that matter – especially China where the only equivalent I could think of is a tea house), you might not be overly familiar with “pubs”, which is an abbreviation for “public houses”.  A short treatise.

As opposed to a “bar”, a wine bar, or a club, pubs hail from the English and Irish tradition; the little lounge on the corner, usually an old building with timber or tile lined walls, beer on taps, stained glass windows, and a quiet place to socialise and forget your troubles, a bit like a lounge room for the poor.  It’s a place that might have a dining room for a wedding, a nook for lovers, perhaps a ladies lounge apart from the men’s front bar where the girls weren’t supposed to come in (in the olden days).

In Australia, pubs are a big part of Victorian and South Australian cultures, and tend to be in old (in excess of a hundred years) buildings that have always been pubs.  Places built on the way to the gold fields, dotted in little country towns.  In NSW, it seems they’ve been replaced by Leagues Clubs, huge rambling barns with poker machines and tellys everywhere.  Queensland still has a few, but the old classics in Brisbane with big verandahs  seem to have been broken up into lots of little businesses in the old edifices or turned into monster nightclubs where you can score hard drugs.

Pubs are your “local”, a place to drink beer, and maybe see a band.  And they’re distinctly part of the core of southern Australian drinking culture; in short, if you ever come to Melbourne, get out of the CBD (the Central Business District) and into the inner suburbs like Richmond, Fitzroy, or Collingwood, and go to the fucking pub for fuck’s sake.  Or else you’ll have missed one of the key cultural experiences on offer.

Diatribe over (and sorry for swearing Mum!!).

Now for some background to the planning of this particular pub crawl (see map here); one which you might try yourself some day.

Not Drinking in a World of Drinkers

Have you noticed how every month these days seems to have a theme?  For example there’s “Fanuary” – the month where you don’t shave your pubes (???), "Feb-fast" – where you give up booze, "No Meat May", "Dry July"- another month of no drinking (!), and "Movember" – where you grow a moustache and raise money for prostate cancer research???

I guess there’s people out there trying to have more proscriptive months coming to you soon like “brush your teeth April”, “be sure to lodge you tax in a timely manner June”, “please don’t leave your cups in the sink and put the milk back in the fridge October”, and “Eat at least two fruit and five vegetables while using correct posture December”… or something like that anyway.  Just you watch!

Usually I give drinking up for Lent (note – this is a pagan festival overtaken by Christianity – where you starve yourself of “your habit” off the back of winter coming into spring for six weeks to increase your fertility and save on dwindling supplies).  I give up drinking during Lent because I’m a border-line alcoholic and need the break for improved liver function and self-control.  But this year?  Meh.  Febfast is easier; it’s only four weeks long, the shortest month of the year.  The true alcoholics’ month off.  I thought I’d change my routine.

While I didn’t drink during February, I DID attend the opening round of the new AFL Women’s league, riding my bike with my wife from Victoria Park to Princes Park to watch Carlton flog Collingwood in the ladies' division.  Amazingly we passed pub after pub of people going “whey-hey!!” and generally having a nice time drinking beer in the sunshine.

Over the next few weeks I sat down not drinking, and brewed and stewed, wondering when it would be MY chance to go to these pubs, and how to fit them all in?

Legal Disclaimer

It is illegal to drink, get over .05 blood alcohol (two or three "standard drinks" worth) and ride a bicycle in Victoria.  You can lose your driver's license, plus it is dangerous.  In fact, anywhere in Australia it is illegal to be inebriated and in charge of a vehicle of any kind, including roller skates and electric wheelchairs.  So this is definitely NOT an article encouraging anyone to break the law.  No.  This is a guide to pubs on a theoretical route, at which you might have the occasional (7 oz) glass of beer, sensibly interspersed with lemon squashes, and food.  In fact, just drink waters at most of them.

Hem hem.

So, we’ve got that cleared up, right?  Very good then.  Let’s go to the pub and see what some of them are like!!

Princes Park Bowls Club
109 Bowen Crescent, Princes Park Carlton

This is, officially speaking, not a pub at all. It’s a lawn bowls club, and one of the most under-rated venues on Earth; we met there because they are pleasant surrounds and a good place for people to meet with bicycles (near a train station, in a park). When we arrived, I signed in, and we were the only patrons at the place.

$6 cans of standard beer, up to $8 for their most fancy, you will not find cheaper drink prices or a more beautiful locale anywhere to drink beer in Melbourne. Much.

Located in a park, right next to Sydney Rd, one of Melbourne’s night spots, a fountain with water splashing, tables with umbrellas, it almost defies logic but this place is seldom used. This was the kick off for our ride, and it took us three hours to leave, because it was so damned nice. But I was on a mission, and press on we must.
(p.s. Blue Vapours designed their website!!)

The Great Northern Hotel
644 Rathdowne Street, Carlton North

Located on Pigdon St and Rathdowne Streets, this pub is a rambler, with a large beer garden, television screens, a dark interior with a pool table, and traditional pub fare. The garden is very popular and was packed on a Saturday afternoon. I’ve done some time lapse videos. Click on the link below and you should (fingers crossed) get an idea of what it’s like.

The rides between the first couple of pubs were long-ish – on safe back street bike lanes, Canning Street being a dream for cyclists. This is because (I suspect) many of what were once pubs in Carlton have been turned into houses. They can be seen on many of the street corners on the ride.

The North Fitzroy Star
32-36 St Georges Road South, Fitzroy North

Disaster! We lose a rider with a puncture, and are waylaid here for some time waiting for tubes to be brought back, and the tyre to be fixed. This is a little pub on a quiet corner, that has rebranded itself the ‘Bluebonnet BBQ’; where I had some pork ribs with their slaw and some other crap, while everyone else had sliders. What is it with this American slow cooked food? Well, it’s cheap, easy to prepare (precooked) and makes a change from chicken parmas and salad and beetroot. A little pub, that’s gone hipster…

The Lord Newry Hotel
543 Brunswick St, Fitzroy North

Another pub in the classic tradition of ye olde English pubs. Just a hop from the North Fitzroy Star, you could pogo stick between these two venues.

The Rose Hotel
406 Napier St, Fitzroy

A little bit of a ride here, all up very safe back streets and with a traffic light crossing (please check the map), down past the Fitzroy pool. My original intention had been to go to the Marquis of Lorne instead of this, but it meant going right past a pub and not stopping, plus the side street (Leicester) that it’s on provides a near direct route to the Gem and Leinster Arms. An old time classic, the Rose is NOT on Rose Street. It has also been refurbished, and they’ve (quite frankly) missed the mark. While there I ran into two guys I’d gone to school with, who were there for the Saturday night knock off drinks after Dixon’s Recycled Records closing on Brunswick St. An oldie but no longer quite so goodie…

The Gem
289 Wellington St, Collingwood

The name says it all, and this was definitely the best pub of the day (in my estimation, though the Great Northern was very nice). They play cool music, have a band, the food menu was exceptional (trendy) and I really didn’t want to leave as the vibe was spot on as revellers (I know you usually don’t see that word outside of New Year’s Eve) were just warming up. Very popular.

The Leinster Arms
66 Gold St, Collingwood

What was I thinking including this place? Actually, it’s not bad sometimes, especially if Richard Downie is out the front holding court smoking fags on a sunny weekday afternoon. This is a quintessentially “working class” pub, where Chopper Reid used to drink (on Gold St). By the time we arrived there, there were sub-mental people totally pissed in the front bar, giving the place a threatening feel. We could not leave fast enough after our single pots of Carlton Draught, but normally a nice little back street plonker.

Lulie St Tavern
288 Johnston St, Abbotsford

This is, officially speaking, not a pub either, but a bar set up in a old factory next to Victoria Park, Collingwood’s old football ground. I still have yet to go there, as the people I was with said the crowd was too young (girls in very very short skirts going in in flocks) and it wasn’t officially a pub. I was spewing, especially with such attractive young things there, but I went with consensus and we moved on to the last one we made it to for the day.

The Yarra Hotel
295 Johnston St, Abbotsford

This really is a great pub, though they’ve moved the band room from the main bar into a back room to control payment for gigs and to allow normal patrons access to the bar. Another rambling beer garden, with an outdoor fireplace, this pub is co-owned by numerous local identities including a singer from Things of Stone and Wood, and I suspect Guy from the Napier may also be an investor. Definitely worth a look.

By this time I had exhausted my companions, though the last few on the list of the map attached are all very close to where I live, so I’m able to give you some insights.

The Retreat Hotel
226 Nicholson St, Abbotsford

This is another “little” pub, with beautiful leadlight windows that let in the sun of an afternoon, and a brass rail around the bar with little elephant heads (using the trunks) holding the rail. Famous as the pub from the 1970’s show the Sullivans, where Uncle Harry ran the bar (Michael Caton who starred in the Castle).

The Park Hotel
191 Nicholson St, Abbotsford

When I first moved to Abbotsford, this was known as “the police informers pub”, because it was notorious for blags to turn up and tip off the coppers over a quiet beer about what was going down in the criminal world, where you’d walk in and a couple of huddled men would stop talking and give you the eyeball before continuing their muttering. Subsequently, it’s been trendied up, with a beer garden, and kangaroo steaks on the menu, and some amiable lezzies working on the bar. Always good, and the kitchen is open later than the Carringbush.

The Carringbush Hotel
226-228 Langridge Street, Abbotsford

The real reason I used to love Abbotsford, this was an old friendly society building that was turned into a pub, named after Frank Hardy’s notorious gangland Catholic soap-a-mentary ‘Power Without Glory’ (Carringbush being a substitute name for Collingwood). They have a little bar stocked with old Collingwood football club memorabilia, a couple of dining rooms, a very nice front bar and are “as-pub as-pub” as a pub could be. Unfortunately, due to a chequered ownership history, it has had mixed fortunes as a venue, though I believe there are bright times ahead.

The Yorkshire Stingo
48 Hoddle St, Abbotsford

Though my map doesn’t extend to this pub, it rates a mention. It’s the “out of towners” pub, where you’ll meet wine makers from Adelaide in the bar, which has also had mixed management and some terrible makeovers, a TAB, and a bit of a threatening vibe generally. That said, their kitchen is quite good, and you are guaranteed of an excellent meal should you go there.

I realise there are myriad other pub tours you could take in the suburbs mentioned. Fitzroy is a particularly rich vein of still active pubs, where you could include (in no particular order) the Standard, the Labour In Vain, the Perseverance, the Napier Hotel, Marquis of Lorne, the Robert Burns, Fitzroy Town Hall Hotel, the Rochester, the Union Club, the Grace Darling, the Builders Arms, the Gertrude, the Workers Club, the Fox, etc. etc etc. It never ends, really. But the above list (with these add-ons) should give you a pretty good feel for the inner North/East Melbourne pub culture and why it is that Abbotsford, Collingwood, Fitzroy and North Carlton are killing the suburbs south of the river.

Thanks for reading.  As a reward for your perseverance, here’s an old tune I heard on the radio the other day that will give you the vibe of the importance of pubs in Melbourne! It's a 'Nice day to go to the pub', by the Cosmic Psychos.

Oh, I feel like a beer!!!