Fuelled by the power of nostalgia and often run by members and volunteers, cultural clubs offer a unique snapshot of another place, and quite often another time. There are few better ways to experience exotic booze, regional food and the social quirks of Sydney's diverse cultural makeup. I took myself on a tour of Sydney's best clubs for a weekend of schnitzels, shots and lots of dancing.
It doesn't get anymore Dutch than the Rembrandt Dutch Club. Photo: Joel Beerden
Rembrandt Dutch Club
A St Marys industrial area might not be considered prime locale, however this gem offers an all-out assault on the senses that makes up for its geographical shortcomings and then some. We're talking windmills, plastic tulips, jigsaw puzzle portraits of the Dutch Royal family and a life-size reproduction of Rembrandt's Night Watch. It doesn't get any more Dutch than this – there's even joke books in the bathroom. Our bartender is an elderly Dutch gent sporting a single acrylic nail on each pinkie and wearing enough gold jewellery to make rapper Lil Jon blush. He guides us through a solid line up of Dutch beers and gin. Meanwhile, the kitchen dishes up a small menu of no-fuss, modestly priced Dutch classics. Delicacies include the famous herring, served raw, and like most good things in life – on a bread roll. It's a hard-sell for the uninitiated, but rewarding for those brave enough to try. Be sure not to leave without sampling something from the fryer. Deep-frying is a cultural legacy for the Dutch. Wise choices include friets (don't call them French fries) or a plate of bitterballen – crisp, bite-sized snacks filled with a savoury meat paste. Lashings of mayo and mustard are essential.
87 Dunheved Circuit, St Marys, 02 9623 2569, rembrandtdutchclub.com
Secret Basque business. Photo: Joel Beerden
Gure Txoko Basque Club
Unassuming is an understatement in regards to Gure Txoko where we are greeted by a locked door. My dining companion throws me a sideways glance. We knock. We wait. I nervously check my booking. Suddenly the door swings open and it seems we have stumbled upon secret Basque business. The tiny dining room (the only room) is warm and welcoming – adorned floor to ceiling with insignia, pelota trophies and portraits of past club members. Pull up a chair at a communal table and mingle with Basque families and seasoned locals on their weekly pilgrimage. Lunch is only served on Sundays and $25 will get you a traditional three-course Basque lunch prepared by member volunteers, possibly involving chicken braised in tomato with garlic potatoes. (A word of warning and an answer to the locked door mystery: only members of the club are allowed to answer the door to visitors, as a patron is scornfully reminded on this occasion.)
344 Liverpool Street, Darlinghurst, 02 9331 5612, guretxoko.com.au
Schnitzel and salat at the Concordia Club: Marco Del Grande
The Concordia has been kicking around since 1883, but this old-gal has no problem keeping up to date. Since relocating to a disused bowling club in 2005, its convenient location a stone's throw from Tempe station has proven a favourite with the locals. It feels German, but not like a schuhplattler slap to the face. An extensive selection of German beers, schnapps and regional dishes bring in those searching for a slice of Bavaria, but the atmosphere is decidedly unique. The bones of the old bowlo shine through and you can kick off your shoes while the kids run amok on the greens. The most difficult part is balancing fun-in-the-sun vibes with pork consumption. The kitchen does an excellent pork knuckle if you're feeling courageous, otherwise the sausage trio is a winner, with kransky, bratwurst and thuringer covering all banger bases.
Mackay Park, Richardson Crescent, Tempe, 02 9554 7388, concordiaclub.org.au
The bierkeller stylings of the Austrian Club. Photo: Joel Beerden
Austrians love their sport. Hunting trophies, shooting honour boards, and an assortment of winter sports memorabilia make this Frenchs Forest club feel like and alpine bierkeller. Deer hoof coat-hooks seal the deal. The beer is Austrian and very good. Grab a stein of Stiegl and sit down to a wiener schnitzel with a side of semmelknoedel (bread dumplings with gravy). It's very easy to forget where you are. On this occasion, a projector runs looped scenic ski videos of mighty peaks and snowy vistas – a stark contrast to the Aussie bush outside. Although the restaurant will be closed, if you drop by on a Tuesday you can still have a chat with the members of the Austrian Air Rifle Association. It might be your first step to claiming a spot on the Schutzen Konig wall of fame.
20 Grattan Crescent, Frenchs Forest, 02 9452 3304, austrianclubsydney.com
Ashfield Polish Club
This treasure has been quietly doing its own thing since 1967, tucked away in the back streets of a suburb better known for its Chinese restaurants. Old boys banter at the bar, lining up shots Zubrowka and quibbling about the level of the pour. A quick glance at the impressive list of Polish beers and vodkas and you can understand why the locals are giving it a workout. The restaurant has recently changed management and is now back in the hands of the club. Business is booming, so make a booking to avoid disappointment. Start with classics such as pierogi and potato pancakes but keep in mind that servings are generous – especially if you plan on tackling a hunk of pork as well. Note that ballroom dancing night is an intensely serious affair here with fierce competition amongst the regulars. On the evening we visit, one aspiring belle has gone to the effort of hiring a professional dance partner. The locals are not happy and dancefloor scowls are rife.
73-75 Norton Street, Ashfield, 02 9798 7469, polishclub.net.au