Pub-restaurants up the ante – hospitality

A typical pub menu covers all the classics, from chicken amongst wedges with sweet chilli sauce and sour cream and of course, steak night. The staple dishes are plain, simple and have been loved by Australian audiences for years. But things started to change in 1991 when the term gastropub was coined in the UK, which refers to a place that offers high-quality food a cut above your average schnitzel and chips.

Pubs and beer halls in Australia have kept the concept alive, with venues across the country putting their own spin on the elevation of pub grub that attracts customers as much as their booze offering.

Hospitality interviews Zac Green of the Waterloo Inn and Nathan Lennon and Nicholas Wong of the Bob Hawke Beer & Leisure Center about creating unique experiences that appeal to all types of restaurants.

Chef Zac Green has teamed up with his wife and business partner Alex Sumner to give the Waterloo Inn a fresh start. At first glance, it looked like a classic pub, but the couple saw the potential to create a relaxed drinking and dining destination in Swansea, Tasmania.

“It was meticulously maintained, but had no customers,” says Green. “There was a beautiful pool table, quirky bingo style leather chairs, terrific artwork and curtains and a quirky menu board. It was an odd prospect to take it over and we had no real expectations, but something clicked for the general clientele.

The Waterloo Inn

Customers have no doubt been intrigued by the menu, which is described as “unpretentious dining” and “food you want to eat without tripping you up too much.” Customers rarely see the same dish twice, and Green wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Our best menus are designed at the eleventh hour,” he says. “A dish or two will change depending on what we run out of and if I have something new to make.”

Seasonality plays a big role in Green’s approach to cooking. For the most part, the ingredients are sourced from local producers in Tasmania. “I usually try to stick to Tasmanian produce,” says the chef. “I’m definitely inspired by the seasons and what’s available locally as well as what grows in my own garden.”

An example is a dish that sees Green’s chicken eggs topped with a leek vinaigrette. “The leaks were given by a friend who grew them amongst her asparagus and she treated them like weeds,” the chef explains.

Beer-battered oysters also had their time in the spotlight, with the dish inspired by other gastropubs. “I used to go to a bar in Melbourne called The Last Jar,” says Green. “It’s an Irish pub and the food was amazing. There would always be something like rabbit’s or pig’s feet and you could get Guinness fried breaded oysters. At one point I thought it would be nice to do a battered oyster and then things evolved from there.

Gastro pubs are ubiquitous in Sydney, but The Lucky Prawn at the Bob Hawke Beer & Leisure Center in Marrickville has turned the Eurocentric concept on its head. Hawke’s Brewing Co. opened a restaurant and pub to the public earlier this year with the aim of creating a multi-faceted experience for visitors.

“As a brewing company, a sense of belonging is hugely important,” says co-founder Nathan Lennon. “Essentially, it’s a place not just to brew beer, but where people can come and drink it straight from the source.”

Working with business partner David Gibson, Lennon brainstormed food concepts that would work with the venue. “We initially thought of food trucks like any other brewery,” he says, “but if you look at 200 to 300 people on site, food trucks start to get tricky. [when it comes to] service. What story does it allow you to tell outside of community engagement? It made us reconsider and take control of our diet, [creating] a really clear story.

Shortly after, the pair came up with an idea that would align with the Hawke’s brand. a Chinese bistro. “It didn’t take long for David and I to land on a Chinese-Australian regional bistro offer because it felt incredibly authentic to the 1980s, which is what we stand for,” says Lennon. “It’s super nostalgic food that felt almost as Australian as anything we could think of in terms of our own experiences growing up.”

The venue brought in Nicholas Wong (ex-Cho Cho San and CicciaBella) as head chef for The Lucky Prawn. The menu is reminiscent of what you would find in a Chinese bistro at a local bowling club and includes dishes such as shrimp toast, blood choy bao, wontons and sweet and sour pork.

“A good variety of menu items balances light, fresh ingredients with a hint of nostalgia,” says Wong. “We’re honest in our approach to this style of food, simply because we love eating it ourselves so much.”

Wong sticks to Cantonese cuisine when it comes to dishes, with the restaurant sourcing selected ingredients from local businesses in Marrickville. “We get the bread for the prawn toast right across the road,” Wong says. “The dumplings are made by Lai Shing Dim Sum Factory (located just 200m from the recreation center); our fermented fried bread used to mop up the XO pee sauce is a by-product of Brickfields next door and our chefs frequent Asian grocers in Marrickville for top-notch vegetables.

Aside from the food, a pub’s greatest asset is its drink selection. At the Waterloo Inn, natural wines complement the culinary approach. “Natural wines are expressions of particular seasons, grapes, vineyards and winemakers that capture a time and place,” says Green. “These are not generic products, and I feel like it fits the food. It’s usually on for a short time, not a long time.

The wine list is constantly changing and shows the best makers in the state and beyond. “We have a selection of local wines and many of them are from the East Coast,” says Green. “Some of them are good friends of ours, so we’re happy to showcase their wines. We try to tie it all together [list] by being local to the area, as is the food. Natural wines are pure and are not muddled with too much like food.

Beer is of course the drink of choice at Hawke’s, and in the mind of the late Prime Minister Bob Hawke himself, nothing goes better with beer than a Chinese meal. “Chinese food goes really well with beer,” says Lennon. “Dishes like hot and numbing chicken wings make your mouth water because it’s a mixture of salt and spices, making you want to have a draft beer.”

Many people go to a brewery for the sole purpose of drinking beer, but Hawke’s delivers the experience and more to The Lucky Prawn. “When you create a bar attached to a brewery, you expect everyone to go there because they’re a beer lover who wants to try the beers on tap,” Lennon explains. “But we found a great mix of customers who come after wanting to sit down for a Chinese meal at Lucky Prawn.”

Sharing plates topped the trend in restaurants many years ago, and the same can be said for the pub scene. The Waterloo Inn and The Lucky Prawn both encourage diners to share dishes and believe this fosters a sense of togetherness among guests.

“There are a lot of people who are unfamiliar with the concept of sharing in this area,” says Green. “It’s amazing how the ideas have been prominent in Sydney and Melbourne for a long time, but they haven’t really caught on here. I think the most heartwarming thing I see is when people who have been here once before get a feel for the concept of food sharing. And then they come back and start repeating the words I said to them the first time, like, “The menu changes; it’s seasonal and it’s a one-chef kitchen”.

When it comes to menu design, sharing plates bring a lot more to the table when it comes to setting the overall mood. “When you go to traditional pubs, you get a par and eat it yourself,” says Lennon. “We like plates to share because they are linked to group fun. It’s great to come with a group of friends or family and order 10 things from the menu to share. I think, inherently, that’s what Chinese food is.

Expectations of pub restaurants have changed for good, with the Waterloo Inn giving locals the chance to try something new. “You have [still] you have your bread and butter Tasmanians that do a pint and a parmy, but that’s not what we do and that’s okay because there’s another pub down the road that does just that,’ says Green . “But then there’s the other group of people who have retired to Swansea and want something different and interesting.”

Pub environments elicit a sense of familiarity, which is what Hawke leans towards. “Coming out on the other side of the pandemic, people want to go out in groups more,” says Lennon. “It’s about creating an experience that makes it easier to get back together with friends. We give them a pub-style experience, but do it our way with our own storytelling.

Freeda S. Scott