The Unicorn Hotel
Address 106 Oxford Street, Paddington 02 9360 7994
Open Mon-Sat 11am-3am; Sun 11am-midnight
Does the Unicorn have the best pub food in Sydney? That depends how you want to define pub food. I've had better food in a pub. Ben Greeno is kicking konbu goals at the Paddington, for instance, and Colin Fassnidge's braised lamb shoulder at the Four in Hand is for all time. However, if you want to talk classic Australian pub food – the kind of gravy-drenched steak, schnitzels and chook-raffle chops served from Bendigo to Broome with curly parsley and a Keno draw – then, yes. My stars, it is.
Given the talent in the kitchen, this should come as no surprise. The Oxford Street venue was relaunched in December under the Newtownian stewardship of Jake Smyth, Kenny Graham, Bruno Wickes and Drew Corbel (all four blokes from Mary's), Elvis Abrahanowicz and Joe Valore (Porteno, Continental Deli) and Young Henrys gentleman-at-large Oscar McMahon.
Instead of whacking a TAB in the corner and forking out for a Fox Sports licence, the team have created a pokie-free template for renewal that every other pub in the country could do well to take inspiration from.
It's a pub rooted in Australian tradition but doesn't pander to nostalgia. There's no Reschs posters showcasing grapple-tackles or photos of cricket teams from the 1920s. Most of the banana-yellow walls are without decoration, save for a working dartboard, a handful of native fauna drawings and a map of Australia by local artist Michael Whooley. There are plans for Whooley to contribute more artworks, just as there are plans to feature live original music by local artists and for the infant bottlebrush in the beer garden to grow from shrub to tree. No hurry though, as a good pub doesn't need to show all its cards at once.
Let's talk more about that killer food. From the counter meal menu, a vegetarian lasagne ($18) bursts with delicious cheese and vegie goodness and a mixed grill ($32) takes a dying breed of the pub menu to new levels with roast pork, a lamb chop, calf's liver, rissole, fried egg, mint sauce and white bread. Meanwhile, give me a better pub steak under $20 and I will give you my heart. A wonderfully savoury 200 grams of Rangers Valley skirt ($18) is cooked to a level I like to call "knife-optional". There's your choice of sauce on the side (pan gravy for the win), although best go easy on the stuff and give the steak's buttery flavour a chance to shine.
Order the highly sessionable "Pub Juice" of McLaren Vale shiraz ($9/$45) to drink with it. The Unicorn boys have made it in collaboration with James Erskine from Jauma in Basket Range, South Australia, and the label artwork is by Smyth's two-year-old daughter, Luna-Wolf, and Kenny Graham's eight-month-old, Hunter. Cute, delicious and, like all the wine, excellent value. It's awesome to be able to walk into a pub and grab a knock-out glass of something red, natural and Australian to swill for under $10.
The beer taps include Reschs (refreshingly $6 a schooner), VB, Carlton and a handful of local beers. All beer taps ever need to include, really.
A great pub has great stories to tell, bookmarked by chips on the wall, broken pool cues and beer stains on the carpet. This is already a beaut place and will only get better the scruffier it becomes. I look forward to becoming scruffier and older with it.
Go for … steak, schnitzel and schooners.
Stay for … $1 pool and a perch at the mighty red gum bar.
Drink … Reschs and anything from the all-natural Australian wine list.
And … Vili's pies are available until close. Vili's: because you can't improve on perfect.