IT'S THAT TIME OF THE YEAR AGAIN, when summer clamps its clammy hand around the lightly frosted schooner of spring. And how better to enjoy these lazy days than by sitting in a pub with good food and a great atmosphere, all washed down with a cold one (or two) and a glass of excellent local wine?
But where to go? For the third year running, The Sydney Morning Herald Pub Food Guide 2013 has been out tracking down the best NSW has to offer. In six weeks, our 94 reviewers ate in more than 500 hotels throughout the state, resulting in almost 400 reviews.
Last year we gave the coveted Three Schooner awards (our highest accolade) to eight pubs - this year it's 11. And the Two Schooner awards have grown from 23 to 31. The number of One Schooner winners has dropped slightly, but this just reflects those that have jumped upwards and the fact we have been stricter than ever with our scoring.
Thankfully, the pub food phenomenon has proven to be immune to the fads and fashions that affect other areas of the industry. All in all, it's been a year when the standard of food in our pubs has improved yet again. As one reviewer said on his return from a multi-stop country pub odyssey: ''I'm just amazed at how good the food is out there.''
Here, then, are the pick of the places across NSW, from the best cheapskate feed to the best first date and beyond. So buckle up and let those pants out a notch or two. It's not like you're going down the beach, after all.
Best beer gardens
Beer gardens and summer go hand in hand, like schnitzel and chips or sticky dates and puddings. So, as you can imagine, there's no shortage of candidates for our best beer gardens category. Two of the best can be found at the Gol Gol Hotel on the banks of the Murray River, and that hardy perennial, the Newport Arms, on the northern beaches.
At the Gol Gol, you can walk off a houseboat and on to the lush lawns of the beer garden, where you lunch while watching paddle boats ply the Murray. The Golly has a plush dining room and ante-rooms, should the weather not play ball. ''Sitting and eating in such a well-appointed place, with such expansive grounds opening out on to the banks of the river, was spectacular. The setting truly set this pub apart from the rest,'' our reviewer says.
(Gol Gol Hotel, Sturt Highway, Gol Gol,  5024 8492, golgolpub.com.au.)
At the Newport Arms Hotel, it's not so much a great beer garden as several gardens cascading down the promontory overlooking scenic Pittwater. There are kids' playgrounds, too, all with one of the best views of any pub in NSW. The food's good: think salmon fillet with potato gratin or fennel and watercress salad with an orange vinaigrette.
(Newport Arms Hotel, 2 Kalinya Street, Newport, 9997 4900, newportarms.com.au.)
Best place to be at sunset
The Arms would also have to be in the running for this category, so well positioned is it to catch the final rays of a summer day going down over the Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park. But the finalists in this award are the Lennox Hotel at Lennox Head, on the far north coast, and O'Briens, south at Narooma. Both offer spectacular views across beaches.
The view from the Lennox, our reviewer says, ''is a corker: a spacious balcony overlooking Seven Mile Beach. Pine trees, waves, sand and horizon.''
(The Lennox Hotel, corner Byron Street and Pacific Parade, Lennox Head, 6687 7312, thelennox.com.au.)
O'Brien's, on the other hand, doesn't need a recommendation from us - not when it provides its own by calling itself the pub with the ''million-dollar view''. It's not much to look at from the outside but inside with a schooner, looking out across the Wagonga Inlet and the Tasman Sea beyond, you can see its point. It also claims the world's longest beer font.
(O'Briens Hotel, 101 Campbell Street, Narooma, 4476 3691, obrienspubnarooma.com.)
Of course, if you seek multimillion-dollar views of a more luxurious nature, try the yachts and fishing boats lying in calm water at Brisk Bay from the Patonga Beach Hotel. It's an angler and yachties' paradise but food lovers like it, too, arriving for dinner by car, ferry, water taxi and even hang-gliders.
(Patonga Beach Hotel, 6-8 Patonga Drive, Patonga, 4379 1111, patongahotel.com.)
Could it be one of those ''Phew, what a scorcher'' years when you might want to escape the sun? Head to Le Pub. You could easily lose track of time in this sexy version of a Parisian bistro, tucked under King Street in the city. Cool vibe, cool furnishings: just right for great food and to give that sunburn a rest.
(Le Pub, 66 King Street, Sydney, 9262 3277, lepub.com.au.)
Summer means school's out and the kids are on the loose, which also means looking for the Best Place to Dump the Kids (or, sorry, best family-friendly hotel).
Top of the list is the Taren Point. It not only has a kids' menu - a small version of the grown-up one - but also provides show bags with colouring books and pencils. The glassed-in soundproof playroom, our reviewer says, can be seen from most indoor parts of the pub. ''They also had an entertainer doing face painting and balloon sculptures, along with a tiny petting zoo, although it was a bit unnerving when Miss Six brought a baby duck over to our table just as we were sitting down to duck spring rolls.''
(The Taren Point Hotel, 105 Parraweena Road, Taren Point, 9525 2879, tarenpointhotel.com.au.)
Best dirty weekend
For this award, we were unanimous on the Burrawang Village Hotel in the southern highlands. Not only does it pump out some of the best food in the area on Friday and Saturday nights and offer one of its best beer gardens for lolling about, it also has modern, beautifully appointed spa suites with stunning country views. (Burrawang Village Hotel, 14-16 Hoddle Street, Burrawang, 4886 4206, burrawanghotel.com.)
But what if you're not far enough in your relationship to warrant the dirty weekend and want to impress a date but not spend a fortune? Read on.
Best cheapskate feed
Pop along to the Forest Lodge Hotel in Glebe for food that's far more flavoursome than its modest prices suggest. Most things on the menu hover about $10 to $18, such as the roast pork neck with chilli jam, papaya salad and crispy zucchini. But the quality is way above that. They know their beers, too.
(Forest Lodge Hotel, 117 Arundel Street, Glebe, 9660 1872, forestlodgehotel.com.au.)
Best first date
We'd suggest the FLH for a best first date, too, if the Glenmore hadn't just had such a spectacular makeover. The menu's in its early days but it's still cracking good, and the rooftop terrace now has a full service bar, retractable roof, heaters and stunning harbour views. It's dressed to impress - as should you be.
(The Glenmore Hotel, 96 Cumberland Street, The Rocks, 9247 4794. theglenmore.com.au.)
Best beer pub
So many pubs these days have succumbed to the burgeoning boutique-beer market that it's hard to pick just one best beer pub. Harts Pub in The Rocks is excellent, with good beer (an all-Australian list of craft beers including Hangman Pale Ale, Boxer Red Ale, Sunset Ale and Red Truck Porter) and well-crafted food to match, from towering burgers to summery salads of fried haloumi, cherry tomatoes, orange segments and roasted pistachios.
(Harts Pub, 176 Cumberland Street, The Rocks, 9251 6030, hartspub.com.)
For great beer pubs that celebrate our al fresco summer theme, though, the battle is on between the Australian Heritage Hotel in The Rocks and the Local Taphouse in Darlinghurst. And while the tables and chairs scattered around the Australian have their attractions, there's nothing quite like a sunny afternoon and warm evening drinking some of the excellent beers available at the Taphouse's well-appointed rooftop garden.
(The Local Taphouse, 122 Flinders Street, Darlinghurst, 9360 0088, thelocal.com.au.)
The summer holidays are also a time when man's best friend gets a bit of a run-out, but often they're not welcomed. Not so at the Heads Hotel in Shoalhaven, which gets our nod as best pet-friendly hotel.
The Heads sits on the picturesque Shoalhaven River, within walking distance of Seven Mile Beach, and offers pet-friendly accommodation for up to 29 people. The hotel has rooms allowing small to medium pets, along with a pet enclosure. The food's good, too, and it's also popular among the cyclists who use this stretch of the south coast.
(The Heads Hotel, 51 River Road, Shoalhaven Heads, 4448 7125, headshotel.com.au.)
Given that pretty much every hotel these days has a TV screen (or two, or three) hanging prominently, watching your team if you can't get to the game has never been easier. But the Bridgeview Hotel has gone one better, working its gentlemen's sports club vibe to the max with trophies in the main bar and 1930s armchairs around the screens. It wins best sports-watching, aided by the offer of a 250-gram rump steak with sides for $9 (a daily lunch and all-day weekend special).
(The Bridgeview Hotel, 580 Willoughby Road, Willoughby, 9958 4145, bridgeviewhotel.com.au.)
The Sydney Morning Herald Pub Food Guide 2013 will be available for purchase this Saturday with the paper for $5. It is also available for pre-purchase via The Sydney Morning Herald bookshop.