Ever since the first settlers arrived with a penchant for rum, pubs have been a vital part of Australian culture. Places to nibble Nobby’s nuts and swear at the footy; watering holes to swap stories and whack a coin on the pool table.
But what is it that makes an Aussie pub uniquely “Aussie”? What makes it “proper”? For many punters, a few taps and a TAB room are all that’s needed. For others, just the beer, thanks, and somewhere outdoors to drink it.
“In my opinion, a great beer garden is essential for any proper Aussie pub,” says Jenna Phillips, licensee of The Oxford Tavern in Petersham, Sydney.
“Plenty of cold beer too, of course, and a good pub should be dog-friendly. It’s a pretty simple formula really. Million-dollar fit-outs don’t make a proper Aussie pub – the most important thing is to be engaged with the community.”
Winemaker Brendan Carter agrees. “The locals get what the locals want. If that’s an entire array of mid-strength beers owned by multinational companies [such as Carlton and Lion], then so be it.”
Carter – who co-owns Unico Zelo winery and Applewood Distillery in Adelaide – spent six weeks with his team in late 2020 exploring half the country, from South Australia to Katherine; to Cairns to Byron Bay and Birdsville.
The trip’s primary purpose was to visit farms supplying native ingredients for the distillery’s spirits and liqueurs, but it also provided Carter with the opportunity for a cold one at myriad outback pubs.
“We found the good pubs first and foremost existed to serve the locals,” he says. “The truly great pubs – such as the North Gregory in Central Queensland, and the Devils Marbles Hotel north of Alice Springs – made us feel like locals too.”
Guy Lawson has been at the helm of Fitzroy’s Napier Hotel for 25 years. He worries traditional Australian pubs are becoming increasingly rare, at least in Melbourne.
“So many great old pubs are being renovated into restaurants or taken over by publicans who live in another state or overseas,” he says. “They’re not on the ground listening to the locals. They don’t care to know the regulars’ names.”
Things are changing on the other side of the bar as well, says Lawson. “When customers were paying cash, there used to be a bit of chat at the bar between patrons and staff. Now it’s all tap a card and go.”
Nevertheless, there are still plenty of classic boozers to be found from Broome to Burnie. With input from experts in the field, here are 10 essential elements common to every great Aussie pub.
Cold beer, poured correctly
“Anyone that likes a good pub, likes a good beer,” says Mick Roberts, founder of the Time Gents: Australian Pub Project website, dedicated to documenting the history of pubs through stories and photographs. “If a punter can’t get good beer, they’re not coming back. It’s that simple.”
Pool, preferably free pool
“Pubs should be making money off food and booze, not the pool table,” says Carter. “Pool should always be free. Make it pub law.” The chalk cube must be nice and healthy too, not a manky slither of Smurf dust.
Or at least an arcade machine. Anything with a few buttons and lights besides the pokies, which have never done anything to lift the mood of a pub, ever. “If people want to waste a bit of money, it’s a lot more fun do it on Buck Hunter or pinball than a poker machine,” says Phillips.
A telly for the cricket in summer (and footy in the winter)
And don’t even think about changing the channel without asking. That kind of entitlement is reserved for locals with at least 50 years of patronage under their belt. At least.
Chicken schnitzel and your choice of chips or veg
It doesn’t matter if the chips are served under the fried chook or next to it. What’s crucial is that they’re crunchy and golden. And whether that schnitzel is parma-fied with cheese or squeezed simply with lemon, it should be juicy, greaseless and thicker than John Travolta’s neck. (NB: mash and gravy, always.)
Sturdy stools at a timber bar
“I always want to sit at a big, traditional timber bar,” says Roberts. “A spot where you can perch on a stool, lean in, and have a chat with the bartender. Best of all are the old bush pubs, which still have the ashtray gutter you can rest your feet on.”
It could be a jukebox cranking Bow River, or a DJ switching between honky-tonk and hair metal, but a pub demands music. Only wowsers want to drink in silence.
A beer garden or back veranda
If heaven is a place on earth, it may well be the Mountain View Hotel in Little Mulgrave near Cairns. “It’s this beautiful old Queenslander-style pub with one of the best beer gardens in Australia,” says Roberts. “You’re right on the edge of a river surrounded by rainforest, and the garden goes off every Sunday with live music and the owners’ kids running about collecting glasses. It’s a deadset ripper.”
Few things are more exhilarating than winning a foam tray bearing snags and chops and covered in Glad Wrap. Conversely, few things are more frustrating than forgetting you won that meat tray and leaving your prize at the pub. It belongs to the kitchen hand now; the pub gods have spoken.
Welcome one and all
“Australians are the most welcoming people in the world – most of the time, anyway,” says Guy Lawson at the Napier Hotel. “That welcoming nature is at the heart of any good pub. I always tell my staff ‘make sure you say hello to everyone that walks in and goodbye when they leave’. A simple ‘g’day’ makes all the difference.”