Tavern in the town

Pull up a chair: The warm ambience of the Micawber Tavern in Belgrave.
Pull up a chair: The warm ambience of the Micawber Tavern in Belgrave. Photo: Simon Schluter

There was a time, not so long ago, when country people didn't need phones to know where their mates were on a Friday night; they just sidled down to the pub. While the march of progress brings obvious benefits, old-school qualities still flourish at most regional watering holes. Sure, most outlets boast more than one or two tap beers nowadays, and many have been infiltrated by gambling, but the local pub is as much the lifeblood of towns as it was when the old currency and six o'clock swill were in force. The country pub: it's where farmers let off steam after dawn-to-dusk toil; where town folk congregate for milestones; where footy clubs celebrate or drown their sorrows; where lifelong partners cavort for the first time. It's where many a tall tale is told, and from where legends are born. So, without further ado, here are some of M's best. Cheers!

Victoria Hotel

22 Rowe Street, Ouyen, 5092 1550

Parching summer heat, Mallee stumps and vanilla slice bake-offs may be Ouyen's biggest claim to fame, but those who've paused for refreshment on the highway to Mildura know that the town's watering hole is a quintessential classic. Things don't change in a hurry here, and, indeed, the pub - a grand, Victorian terrace red-brick building - hasn't undergone many changes in recent decades. Farmers' dust-coated utes line its front. The main bar, with its long, beer-matted service area and casual spread of two-tier tables, is pleasing to the eye and cooling to the body on a hot day. The TV is set to footy or cricket, depending on the season, or the news. On Friday nights seasoned locals down pots with blokes they went to school with, tickets for the 20- and 10-pot draws and meat raffle to hand. Framed premiership photos of the local footy team (Ouyen United) form the backdrop to epic games of pool. And what's a country pub without a vintage bistro and wholesome pub grub? I can hear Wednesday night's $12 schnitzel calling me from the top of the Calder. DL

The Stanley Pub

6-12 Myrtleford-Stanley Road, Stanley, stanleypub.com.au
Wed 4pm-late, Thu-Sun 11am-11pm

Round a winding road off the main drag from Beechworth, past berry and chestnut farms, the Stanley Pub sits in a peaceful part of the country. Owners Shane and Annemarie Harris have worked hard over the past five years to transform the historic building into a rustic culinary experience with a focus on quality local produce. What history? The pub dates to 1854 when mining money brought beer to the outback. Travels through Europe inspired the couple's approach, Annemarie says, and it shows - down to the jars of homemade preserves for sale. The berry farms are put to good use. These days the hotel's reputation keeps away those looking for a pot and parma, but a casual visit is certainly not out of order. The fries, dressed with truffle salt, are the best in the business. Accompanied by a Celtic Red ale from the Bridge Road Brewery or a King Valley Riesling, it's enough to cause a swell of pride in Victoria's developing pub fare. AC

Caledonian Inn (aka The Stump)

41 Bank Street, Port Fairy, 5568 1044

There's a certain magic about Port Fairy; it's like a visit to the historic green rolling hills of Ireland sans the 24-hour plane journey. The folk festival, held annually in March, is a common starting point, but the town's charms reveal themselves in a somewhat less chaotic way the rest of the year round. There's a solid pub culture here, and the pick of the four watering holes is the Caledonian Inn - or ''The Stump'', as it's commonly known. Established in 1844, it's the oldest continuously licensed hotel in Victoria, and, indeed, the white-painted brick and orange-roofed building is reminiscent of an Irish village inn from another century. Inside is all about the flow of Guinness and Kilkenny, the buzz of music, and traditional pub fare in the cosy dining room. The main bar, with its polished-pine service area, bluestone walls and roaring open fire, transforms into an intimate gig area on weekend nights. People cradle drinks and watch. They sing along. They talk to each other in between songs. Phones rarely come out. The end result will be a hangover, but it'll be worth the pain - and subsequent ''hair of the dog'' visit (complete with a wry, morning-after smile from the bartenders) if you're fortunate enough to be staying multiple days. DL

Old Hepburn Hotel

236 Main Road, Hepburn Springs, oldhepburnhotel.com.au
Sun 12pm-11pm, Mon-Tue 4pm-12am, Wed-Thu 12pm-12am, Fri-Sat 12pm-1am

The Old Hepburn is all about the classics. Tried and true Aussie labels line the beer fridge. The tap boasts two handles, one red, one green. The '80s drink of choice, Sex on the Beach, is as exotic as the cocktail list gets. The food menu touts parmas, a Kiev and fish'n'chips. There's even a framed poster of the Beatles watching over the front bar tables, clustered around a fireplace. And it's this no-new-frills approach to pub-going that has long made the Old Hepburn a loved destination, particularly for those who want some live music with their Friday-night knock-offs. A stage in the corner plays host on weekends to bands and songwriters travelling through. (A look at upcoming gigs on the pub's calendar reveals revered rockers and up-and-comers.) When that happens, the dining tables are pushed aside and it's just the band, the punters, a corrugated iron bar and a few cheery (and busy) staff. A courtesy bus makes drop-offs to the local areas when all's said and done - yes, it's that kind of place. It's also for sale. The hotel has had only three owners in the past 70 years, so interested parties should probably be ready to settle in for a while, just like the clientele. AC


Conargo Pub

Main Street, Conargo NSW, 5884 6850

How far would you travel for a bumper sticker? A fair way, it seems, if the number of big-engined cars and utes sporting the Conargo Pub's simple black and white souvenir is anything to go by. Anyone who's been to country Victoria or NSW (or any other state, for that matter) has seen one. Indeed, the Coburg lads we bumped into on our visit confessed to making the dull four-hour trek for said sticker - "and our fill of Bundy and coke". But while the stickers and rum are constants (it claims to have the second-highest sales of Bundy in NSW), this iconic Riverina pub, situated an hour or so north of Echuca, is worth a visit on many other counts. Established in 1853, there's a certain pride in the infamy of the place. Vintage memorabilia - photos of monumental fish hauls and triumphant sporting teams - crowd the walls. Jackaroos and leathery-skinned locals - whose homes are "a kilometre or 20" away - mix cordially with travellers. In busier times, such as during the Deni Ute Muster, groups settle at wooden tables in the vast lounge area, taking turns at the pool table and jukebox. For the complete experience, stay in one of the small mud-brick units in bushland out the back. Just remember the Aerogard. DL

Farmers Arms Hotel

1 East Street, Daylesford, thefarmersarms.com.au
Seven days 12pm-late

It's a cinematic experience rounding the corner on the Midland Highway to the sight of the Farmers Arms, a short drive from Daylesford's town centre. The vine-ornamented brick pub backs onto a paddock of grazing cows, with the highway dipping off to the horizon in the distance. On a day when the morning chill has lingered too long, it's also a bloody welcome sight. Nicely heated, an intimate front bar leads on each side to carpeted dining rooms, meaning that when the crowds arrive for dinner the place never feels like a holding pen. A small back courtyard and garden await summertime, when they will certainly come into their own. The pub's English-style menu (mains average $30) reflects the informal yet mannerly atmosphere: roasted meats and pastas abound. For a snack, a bowl of chunky sweet potato chips served with a tart chilli remoulade can't be beat. Pair it with a flavour-packed ale from Melbourne brewery Matilda Bay. They might be curiously named, but the Dog Bolter dark lager and the Itchy Green Pants cloudy ale (apparently named after the affliction experienced by workers in the heat of the brewery) are tap beers to be applauded, along with this charming hotel. AC

Fish Creek Pub

1 Old Waratah Road, Fish Creek, 5683 2404

With a seven-metre aluminium rooftop fish, the ''Fishy'' Pub's imposing art-deco exterior stands like a beacon in the South Gippsland township of Fish Creek. Boasting a history dating back to 1939 (although several incarnations prior to that were destroyed by fire), it's the archetypal all-year-round pub: in summer there's the pleasant twilight of the beer garden; in winter it's all about the open fire - and, perhaps, a port, muscat or tokay that's been aged in oak barrels onsite. The front bar is a warm, clean and homely space where locals and punters on Wilsons Prom getaways rub shoulders. Select from the range of regional beers and wines (or huge array of spirits), pull up a swivel bar stool or window seat and you're set. For sporty types there's a well-kept pool table, dart board and betting facilities. The food gets few complaints - locally-sourced seafood and lamb are among the specialties; nor does the exposed-brick, communal-feel dining room in which it's consumed. For those wanting a place to crash - or set up base to explore the area's galleries, cafes and vineyards - there are retro-style motel units out back. Think indulgence in a simplistic setting: you'll be back. DL

White Rabbit Brewery

316 Maroondah Highway, Healesville, whiterabbitbeer.com.au/brewery
Sat-Thu 11am-5pm, Fri 11am-9pm

There's not much of a vista from the front terrace of the White Rabbit Brewery. A little way down the Maroondah Highway, the deep green peaks of the Yarra Valley hills can be admired in all their glory. The brewery, however, is focused on what's inside, not out. The cement-and-steel monolith houses the impressive chrome machinations of the celebrated Victorian brand. All visitors need worry about is choosing a retro couch on which to plant themselves and an ale to sup. The classic White Rabbit dark and white ales are complemented by a rotating roster of specialty brews, concocted by the expert team running the show. The crew is also on hand to explain where flavours are drawn from. It's in those explanations that the brewery's unofficial motto, scrawled in chalk on a board - "where fermentation meets imagination" - can be fully appreciated. We're talking anything from the combinations of hop varieties to the histories of the barrels in which the ales have aged. On weekends, artisan pizzas keep the hungry hordes satisfied. The surrounding hills help, too, even if they can't be seen. What else to accomplish in the midst of all those green peaks but a glass of suds and a hearty slice? AC

The Pig and Whistle

Corner James Lane and Pearsons Road, Trentham East, 5424 1213

Melburnians are spoilt for choice when it comes to day-trip options, with Daylesford, Woodend, the Macedon Ranges and the greater Bendigo area all top-of-the-head possibilities. A little less renowned, but equally worth a visit, is Trentham - a visually pleasing village with a smattering of excellent cafes, a picturesque lake and, of course, a couple of pubs. While the Cosmopolitan in town is an excellent, family-friendly take on the classical country watering hole, the Pig and Whistle, which is about five minutes' drive east (follow the signs) has a charm all of its own. A cosy and subtly quaint set-up aimed at foodie types, the place boasts excellent pub fare and a casual, backyard-feel outdoor area. While the domestic beer list is small, the care shown to the Guinness pipes is noticeable - a definite nod to the pub's Irish roots. Wine lovers, meanwhile, can gleefully while away the hours sampling the local drops (Macedon Ranges winery Granite Hills figures prominently across all grape types). The Dundee pie is a must, as is Sunday's roast pork or lamb with all the trimmings ($18.50 on its own or $29.90 for three courses) - it, alone, is worth the 75-minute journey from the big smoke. DL

Portsea Hotel

3756 Point Nepean Road, Portsea, portseahotel.com.au
Seven days 10am-late

A plate of giant oysters floats by on the arm of a young waiter and lands between a couple enjoying a bottle of wine in the afternoon sun. A group of lads nearby gets stuck into a second round of pints. On the lawn overlooking the bay, kids play tag then head for the gate to take their game down to the sand. The Portsea Hotel is a cosy haven in the colder months, but when the sun comes out it's the very centre of life at the tip of the Mornington Peninsula. Even the pub's location, on the crest of a hill at the township's entrance, reinforces its place in the hearts of locals and visitors. As does the hunt for an outside table on a busy Saturday - with some patience and quick reflexes when the opportunity presents itself, a prized place on the terrace or lawn can be captured. The pub's beer range tours the globe while the mid-priced wine list keenly focuses on the Peninsula. A couple of glasses of Darley pinot gris, from local winemaker Sandro Mosele, is enough to make the accommodations that are upstairs far more tempting than the long drive home. AC

Micawber Hotel

Monbulk Road, Belgrave, micawbertavern.com.au
Seven days 11.30am-late

There's a number of reasons to visit the Dandenongs: the bushwalking; the awe-inspiring, CBD-miniaturising views; the high-teas; and, of course, a pub or two. A local's local that draws them in from all over is the Micawber Tavern, an ''olde worlde'' tavern, restaurant and live-music venue set among the ferns and mountain ash trees of the Dandenong Ranges National Park. With a polished wooden interior, two log fires and swathes of natural light, the place is typical of an old-school Irish pub. Be at one with nature in the idyllic beer garden, or prop up an oak-barrel table in the main bar.

Tap-beer options include the usual home-grown and imported suspects - think Carlton Draught, James Squire, Guinness and Kilkenny - while Old Speckled Hen and 5 Seeds rule the roost for traditional English pale ale and cider lovers. There's a no-fuss, crowd-pleasing bar menu - parmas, pastas, burgers, veal schnitzel - or an ''a la Carte'' menu including bangers and mash, assorted steaks and grilled seafood. A place that thrives on the ''tried-and-true'' script - not to mention a 1am licence on Friday and Saturday nights for drink-happy rockabilly and folk-music lovers - may it continue to resist change. DL

What's your favourite country watering hole? Tell us in the comments.