Melbourne had a strange collective epiphany in lockdown. People who had not been to the pub for years started fantasising about their freedom, and it looked like a parma and pot. Even those who couldn't call themselves a regular any more, having long ago turned away from sticky carpets and well-worn furniture for the gleaming, expansive newness of craft brewery bars and "prog-oz" wine dens.
Perhaps the realisation that we love pubs isn't particularly impressive as far as spiritual awakenings go. Or is it? I was craving a parma more than almost any other dish, but I don't think that's what's driving the rising pub renaissance. It's the place. Pubs mean people. Different people. People who are not your partner or your colleagues on Zoom. There are suits drowning sorrows. New parents. Old salts. Young soaks. Chain-smoking tradies. Your mum. At a pub I knew I'd find proof that the whole world was still out there.
Picking the first pub out of iso was fraught, but it had to be The Lincoln in Carlton, on the corner of Queensberry and Cardigan streets. The shutdown was the first time the taps stopped pouring since it opened in 1854.
It has been a politicians' bolthole, loved by Bob Hawke, a union pub and a student staple. American GIs frequented it in the 1940s after the publican added a little Abraham to the Lincoln name. When veteran Iain Ling took over in 2014, it developed serious dining credentials, championing Victorian produce, but unlike a lot of boozers-turned-gentrified-bistros it never lost its roots.
The front bar stands barely changed. The tan and green tiled bar possesses the ankle-height troughs that caught the worst of spills in the days of the "six 'o'clock swill". It's a bare-bones boozer that won't scare the horses with a TV above the door. But the dining room is carpeted and soft, with huge vintage posters for French plonk and quality pork.
The menu, cooked by head chef Zac Shearer, who founded Hobart's Crumb Street Kitchen and had just come aboard in November, features some of Melbourne's best examples of classics enhanced not molested.
A scotch egg, served with a mustardy sweet piccalilli, is three layers of texture nailed. Crack the golden crumb shell for thyme-heavy pork mince and a liquid-yolked heart. Dipping a single hot chip in its eye is quite a moment. Did you try to fry anything in your house? I bet it was only once.
More fried excellence takes the form of a cheesy croquette, its molten heart an explosive reminder that we've been eating most things as lukewarm takeaway. It's part of a snack pack to start, along with a chilled curl of parmesan custard on top of a crumpet, edamame fired up with spicy XO sauce and jumble of olives from Mount Zero.
There's no parma. But there is a holy schnitzel, all crunch and juicy bird finished with a dousing of garlic butter, a hefty but not heavy beast thanks to a bright, light thatch of fennel coleslaw.
A friendly public service announcement here: operators have been through war and reopening has presented a fresh new hell of rules that seem to have bypassed public knowledge. There's no propping up the bar under phase one. You must order a proper meal, sign in and stay sitting down (no approaching the bar).
Despite the pub's desperate need to make money again, they've accommodated thirsty regulars as much as possible with a hearty sandwich and chip offer that's essentially a beer tax, but if you're keen to come back to the pub, spend up big, learn the rules, tell your friends.
While you're at it, tell them that Shearer is cooking brussels sprouts caramelised and electrified with a curry-tinged dressing that will punch a hole in your known universe. Tell them there's a sticky date pudding whose deeply darkened sugars touch the bitter-sweet void.
Tell them there's sour beer from Two Metres Tall and a chocolate nitro stout from Edge and Carlton Draught. And wines from Ochota Barrels and Mac Forbes and Domaine Lecheneaut, if they really want to give the pub a financial boost.
The Lincoln is a great pub. And that is because Ling is a great publican. When the shutdown ripped a hole through the industry, he flung the kitchens open to the COVID-19 Employee Assistance Directive to help them feed hundreds of peers. Before that, when the Made Establishment collapsed, he opened the space to workers who had lost their jobs.
You want community? It's here. It's good to have it back.
Where: 91 Cardigan Street, Carlton, 03 9347 4666, hotellincoln.com.au.
Cost: Entrees $16-$18; mains $26-$45.
Go-to dish: Chicken schnitzel, garlic butter and fennel slaw ($28).
Pro tip: Be a legend and remember that with limited numbers every seat counts (including children). Order generously.
Phase one rules: Max party size of six. Must order a full meal to drink. Names and numbers of all parties must be taken.