16 Michael Street Brunswick, VIC 3056
|Opening hours||Daily, 10.30am-1am|
|Payments||eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9077 5572|
On paper, Howler might seem to have been plucked from the pages of the hipster playbook. Ticking all the boxes, from its obscure Brunswick warehouse location to the artisan beer list, bike-friendly attitude, vego-accommodating bar snacks and impeccably curated DJ rosters, you could be forgiven for imagining Howler as just another clubhouse - or support group venue - for a much-maligned subculture.
But walk into the expansive, cleverly renovated warehouse space and the exuberant originality will stop your eyes mid-roll.
It's not just the indoor-outdoor beer garden, with its sculptural bike racks and massive wooden benches, black metal planter boxes full of trees, metal cube sculptures hanging from the A-frame roof and wood-panelled wall that folds back to reveal an outdoor bar.
Nor is it the indoor bar space, reached through an automatic glass door next to the central DJ booth, where more plants hover above angled banquette seating and lighting that gives the place a wonderful sense of texture and captures the "anywhere but here" vibe all the best bars have.
It's not even just about the theatre being built out the back to stage everything from music to comedy to cabaret, or the gallery space that's also nearing completion.
What really banishes the cynicism is the way Howler feels so original, good-natured and inclusive. It has something of a community-arts hub feel about it but in a parallel-universe, good-looking way - sans obligatory hideous mural and posters for drumming workshops and with the welcome addition of good booze, tasty bar snacks and interesting music.
The presence of excellent Japanese beer Hitachino Nest on tap is the first sign that this is a saloon keen on providing you with the good alcoholic stuff. There's Monteith's Pilsner and Kooinda Golden Ale on tap as well, admirably supported by a bottled range of Australian and fancy foreign brews such as the schwarzbier-style Dirtoir Black Lager from Rogue Farms in Oregon.
The wine list isn't as exciting and seems less interested in the smaller guys than the beer selection does, but with per-glass prices that top out at $10 (St Huberts pinot noir), a swings-and-roundabouts attitude prevails.
There are good cocktails (all $17) of the classic Mint Julep/Tom Collins kind that will come and go according to the season, as well as some interesting house-generated concoctions that include the King of Kraken, a mix of rum, ginger and pomegranate liqueur, cinnamon and lime that's finished with freshly ground black pepper. A little over-iced, the sweet, spiced and savoury flavours of the drink nonetheless play nicely together.
Howler has a cute snack menu of Asian-style street food - dumplings, bao, spring rolls and salads - that's reasonably priced ($8 for four dumplings or spring rolls or two well-stuffed bao or a small salad) and includes flavour combinations such as a surprisingly successful crocodile and lemon myrtle spring roll or a satisfying soy-dressed salad of buckwheat and green tea noodles.
There's no doubt hipsters frequent Howler. But such is the inclusive feel of the space, it's just as likely to be lively with kids on a sunny day or with people having a coffee post-gym workout at the Brunswick Baths across the street. It's a place of many possibilities. Original spaces are like that.
Cheers An exciting, original space
Jeers The wine list doesn't raise a pulse
Chris Lemuelu, the main bar guy at Howler, says his mission in compiling the list was to make it interesting so people would be tempted to try new things.
"No one's getting any dumber in Brunswick," he says. "And a crowd like that doesn't want the average thing; they're more interested in discovering new flavours, being offered a beer they might not have heard about before."
As far as cocktails go, Lemuelu says he was after the kind of drinks that were as much "about enjoyment and flavour as they are about intense alcohol".
The communal nature of much of Howler's seating (and attitude) also lends itself to jugs of cocktails, such as the Wildfire.
60ml 10 Cane rum
60ml Regal Rouge sweet vermouth
Juice of 1 orange
Juice of half a lime
1 red chilli
Pour all the ingredients except the lemonade and ice into a jug. Cut the red chilli into pieces on an angle, give it a gentle press and then add, seeds and all. Throw in ice and top up with lemonade. Garnish with orange wheels and chopsticks (to stir and to help regulate ice and garnish when pouring).
Pro Tip: Enter via carpark opposite Brunswick Baths on Dawson Street