4 TRADITIONAL MELBOURNE PUBS YOU SHOULDN’T MISS
Australia has a lot of pubs and Melbourne is no exception. But while many of the country’s drinking dens fit the mould of the classic Aussie hotel, Melbourne’s pubs have always been a little different. The best of these ooze character, pump out top class beer and serve up satisfyingly delicious gastro grub. Returning to the city after a long absence, we crawled round some of the city’s oldest neighbourhoods, stopping in at a few select establishments that had lingered long in our pub-going memories. Every one of these was introduced to us by a local as one of their favourites. They each offer something a little different and have their own unique atmosphere. As such, these four traditional drinking dens are not to be missed, and should be part of everyone’s Melbourne pub experience.
THE NAPIER HOTEL
On the go since 1866, this old bar is steeped in character. The front bar has lots of dark wood, colourful stained glass windows, dark green tiles and a tasteful amount of Fitzroy Lions memorabilia. Wandering through, there’s a pool room, back room with more tables for eating and a beer garden for the warmer weather. There’s a real mixed crowd and to us, coming from Scotland, it feels like a proper pub.
When we popped in recently, the late afternoon autumn sun was shining in through red painted shutters, casting shadows on the quirky decor behind the bar. Old American blues singer Tony J. White was singing about being ‘Closer to the Truth’.
Burly publican Guy Lawson, in place since 1996, is known for his selection of Hawaiian shirts and particular sense of humour. The day we were in he was decked out in a bright green and yellow number and as we got to the bar, asking “Is food on?”, he returned in a deep South Australian drawl, “Everything’s on, even the lights.”
Speaking of food, the selection of burgers and mains on offer is first class. Their Aloo Tikki Vegan Burger sent my tastebuds into space and the cheese and meat platter was among the best we’ve had. The extensive selection of local and craft beers lining the bar give you an excellent choice of liquid refreshments too.
All and all the Napier’s mix of traditional interior, quirky character, outstanding food and great beer make it one Melbourne pub you absolutely shouldn’t miss.
LABOUR IN VAIN
Built in 1853 but only a pub since 1998, this no-nonsense place makes us feel instantly comfortable, like slipping on a favourite pair of old jeans. Surprisingly for such a relatively new bar, it feels like it’s been around for much longer, and wouldn’t be out of place on the streets of Glasgow.
It has a lived in feeling that puts it just on the right side of pub with character. The old wood gantry with polished mirrors is fronted by an array of whisky and bourbon bottles glinting invitingly. Bar stools are lined up before the battered bar front where countless feet have swung and kicked. Tall round tables stand on the old worn carpet, surrounded by dark splotches of worked in chewing gum and beneath a yellowed ceiling that hasn’t been repainted since at least 2007 when smoking inside was banned.
We walked in on a quiet midweek afternoon to the welcoming tune of the Small Faces’ Itchy Coo Park. The old barman was dressed all in black, stylish in his narrow brimmed black hat, thick black rimmed glasses and close cropped grey beard. Long haired students played pool and the sun’s afternoon rays shone atmospherically through the stained glass windows. Before long the pub began to fill, men in suits here, groups of friends there, that familiar and comforting buzz building.
The Labour in Vain is a booze only bar, serving a great range of beers, ciders, wine and spirits. It does have regular pop-up BBQs in the beer garden and those who are feeling peckish bring in pizzas and burgers from nearby takeaway joints. There’s live music from Thursday – Sundays when space is at a premium and the place is jumping.
It’s a bar with a special atmosphere – there’s no other quite like it in Melbourne.
THE STANDARD HOTEL
Located away from the main Fitzroy drag, this traditional bar has been doing the business since 1865. “Gimmick-free and character-rich”, they pride themselves on serving only the very best in food and drink.
Like all great traditional pubs, it’s a place for all sorts – hardened drinkers and weekday punters, social get togethers or just those in search of quality no-nonsense pub grub. It’s also known for booking some stand out acts on the live music front – think country rock and blues.
The bar inside is all dim light, mirrors, pictures and dark wood. Out the back, the bright, substantially sized leafy beer garden is a great complement to the traditional interior.
Walking in just past lunch on a Wednesday afternoon, The Smiths were playing as we entered through the hanging curtain. A welcoming buzz filled the air, and the soft light of the lamps was reflected in the glass surfaces and polished wood. A few groups sat at tables eating while regulars occupied the bar, and one gent quietly perused the paper. A wide range of select beers were chalked up on the board barside, and the mulleted barman and pal were comfortingly low key and taciturn. We felt instantly at home.
When it comes to The Standard, their website’s tagline says it perfectly:
‘Hard to find. Easy to love.’
THE UNION HOTEL
The Union Hotel in Brunswick is everybody’s favourite – literally. Of the friends we pubcrawled with in Melbourne, every one of them sited The Union as their top local. Sitting in a new city centre bar with our friend Matthew, he turned and sighed, “Fuck it. Let’s get in a taxi and go to my favourite pub!” “Is it The Union?” Kim replied. “Yeah!”
So on a chilly autumn night we arrived at The Union and wandered in through the classic corner arched door, welcomed by the quietly buzzing midweek atmosphere. The bar was bathed in a soft orange glow, reflected in the glistening ice cold beer taps, and the low murmur of conversation was the perfect soundtrack. We ordered beers and proceeded to get tucked into our first Australian pub meal for many a year. Initially shocked by the portion size after three years in South Korea, we quickly got tucked into an excellent battered fish and chips and kangaroo fillet.
A former strip club just a short walk from lively Smith Street, The Union Hotel has plenty of charm. It ticks all the right boxes: classic pub interior, great selection of beer and wines, tasty pub grub and plenty of it, a leafy beer garden complete with retro couches and fairy lights, an eclectic mix of weekend bands and of course, an indispensable quiz night. Oh, and it has some of the brightest and boldest toilet graffiti in the area.
When you’re looking for a classic local pub, both traditional and modern at the same time, sometimes only The Union will do.
4 TRADITIONAL MELBOURNE PUBS YOU SHOULDN’T MISS
In a city awash with bars of all kinds, these four traditional pubs stand out as must visit establishments, each one with its own unique and distinct character. Sometimes you just want a simple recipe: great beer and deliciously uncomplicated food, all served in a place of character and few pretensions.
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