Jane Holroyd

Best steak ...The Oaks Hotel in Neutral Bay. Click for more photos

Pub Food Guide 2014 Award winners

Best steak ...The Oaks Hotel in Neutral Bay. Photo: Edwina Pickles

  • eftpos Best Pub: Woolwich Pier Hotel, Woolwich. A lot of thought has gone into the recent renovations and the new-look menu at this shining example of what a pub should be.
  • The Woolwich Pier Hotel serves up terrific food, such as the grass fed beef burger.
  • Juicy delight: Rib-eye on the bone from the Bar & Grill at The Oaks Hotel in Neutral Bay takes out best steak.
  • AHA (NSW) Best Pub Chef: Scott Webster, chef and owner of Carrington Place, Carrington. Webster's food is innovative without losing sight of the pub grub ethos.
  • Destination NSW Best Country Pub: Willow Tree Inn, Willow Tree. This country gem is exceptional in every way.
  • Graze bistro in the Willow Tree Inn.
  • Best Value for Money: Plantation Hotel, Coffs Harbour. With a large menu and large clientele, this pub churns out generous plates of food at breakneck speed but not break-the-bank prices.
  • Best Family Friendly: The Belrose Hotel features a jungle-themed playground.
  • Best Beer Garden: Settler's Arms Inn, St Albans. Under the shade of a massive tree is a seriously beautiful place to sit and drink the house beer.
  • Best pizza: The Beach Palace Hotel in Coogee serves up the kind of pizza you scour the city for.

What do you look for in a pub? Fresh-tasting tap beer is an obvious place to start. Nice atmosphere, friendly staff, a good crowd and great pub grub are musts. But what makes a hotel a cut above the pack?

How about weaving all these factors together, then tossing in a nice renovation, a brilliant view and - well, this point may polarise - some nice soft grass out the back for the kids to roll around on?

The beef burger at the Woolwich Pier Hotel.
Best pub ... awarded to Woolwich Pier Hotel. Photo: Steven Siewert

That's right, the newly anointed "best" hotel for dining is the Woolwich Pier Hotel, announced at the Pub Food Guide 2014 awards in Sydney on Monday night.

The harbourside pub, a previous three-schooner winner, took out top honours in part because of its kid-friendly features, plus its menu, which takes in everything from a typical-style pub burger to confit duck and, for the daytime crowd, high tea.

Speaking before the awards, guide editor Keith Austin said the Woolwich was typical of NSW's modern pub scene; while still essentially serving pub grub and schooners, much more thought is put into the ingredients and presentation of meals and there's a definite trend towards providing a family-friendly atmosphere to bring in more customers.

Austin pointed to the winner of the Best Newcomer award, The Henson in Marrickville. "It has a playground out the back ... and there's even a pub that had clowns to entertain the kids."

Austin said that, while not everyone would be happy about the trend, pubs that embraced families were on to a winner. This year's Best Family Friendly gong was awarded to The Belrose Hotel.

But by far the biggest change has been the quality of food served up in our pubs, Austin said. Salmon, an old pub favourite, is now likely to arrive at your table just pink and crisp on the outside, he said. "A few years ago it would have been cooked to death."

While many pubs have stuck with the tried-and-true pub classics, such as burgers and schnitzels, many chefs were lifting the bar by making their ingredients in-house, while bar staff sourced quality craft beers to keep the punters enthused.

"House-made pickles are everywhere," said Austin.

And burgers are no longer about a "slab of meat between two pieces of bread ... the bun might be a sweet brioche and the meat carefully sourced".

The Commercial Hotel (Gerry's) in Millthorpe was singled out at the awards for its take on the pub burger: saltbush lamb with beetroot, caramelised onion and a side of sweet potato "rounds" with a mayonnaise and curry-spice dip to cap it off.

The trend towards quality nosh was best exemplified by Carrington Place; its chef-owner Scott Webster was named Best Pub Chef with his running mate, head chef Scott McLean.
 
All up more than 100 reviewers worked on the 2014 Pub Food Guide, which includes up-to-date entries on more than 400 of NSW's finest. A total of 15 pubs were awarded top recognition, the three schooners award.

New South Wales' Best Country Pub award went to the Willow Tree Inn.

The Sydney Morning Herald's 2014 Pub Food Guide will be available for $5 with The Sydney Morning Herald on Saturday, November 23 (from participating newsagents, while stocks last). It will also be available in bookshops and online at smhshop.com.au for $9.99 from Tuesday, November 19.