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When the Cosmic Psychos sang it was a "nice day to go to the pub" for chips, schnitzel and beer, the Aussie folk trio were surely referencing Sydney in summer. When the Harbour City heats up, an afternoon at the pub is one of the best times you can have with your thongs on.
In 2017, Sydney pubs have a lot more to be excited about than chicken schnitzel. Thanks to savvy operators with a finger on the pulse of punters, once-forgotten boozers such as the soon-to-open Bondi Beach Public Bar, The Unicorn and Tennyson Hotel will be some of the hottest places for sustenance and libation in town this summer.
Except these days, it's a nice day to go to the pub for caviar, negronis and natural wine, too. "The Sydney pub market has changed massively in the last five years," says Jake Smyth, co-owner of The Unicorn in Paddington and Chippendale's live music-loving Lansdowne Hotel.
As customers chase better food, drink and service, pubs are responding to the call.
"Over the last two years of running pubs, we've learned how to listen to what punters want," says Smyth. "It's a two-way conversation between you and your customers. Restaurants are about vision, pubs are about community."
Restaurants are about vision, pubs are about community.Jake Smyth
Justin Hemmes knows a bit about running pubs. The Merivale chief executive now counts more than 65 hospitality venues in his group's portfolio, including Woollahra's Centennial Hotel and Bondi's Royal Hotel, both purchased within the past four weeks,
"I think hospitality is playing a more important role in people's lives because of the internet and social media," says Hemmes. "We are not as face-to-face with each other as we once were and people are crying out for real-life socialising more than ever."
With a come-as-you-please atmosphere, pubs are being rediscovered as the ideal place to engage with fellow humans.
"Five years ago, I noticed people would sit down at a table, their phones would come out straightaway and they would be on them the whole time," say Hemmes. "Now people might look at their phone once, then they put it down and never look at it again. They're engaged in conversation and they're interested in the food and wine in front of them. They're interested in that moment."
Merivale pubs such as The Paddington, Coogee Pavilion and Queen's Hotel Enmore are praised by the Good Food Guide for beautifully designed interiors and killer food.
"A pub means great food, in a great environment with great people," says Hemmes. "Those things are fundamental. And now pubs are accessible to all walks of life and all ages. Families can visit with kids and feel comfortable. You can go there on a date. You can go there with your grandparents."
Not all pubs are transforming into marble-topped wine bars with Campari on tap though. Old-school watering holes with clean lines of Tooheys Old and posters of Newtown Jets players will always be a part of a healthy Sydney pub landscape.
"The really popular pubs around town have gotten better at what they do, but they haven't really changed it," says Smyth. "People will always be happy to tuck into a schnitty and chips at the local as long as they know it has been put together with pride and care. For places that have really stayed true to the community, it's not even about the food offering – people will go there regardless. It's about sitting in the sun and drinking with your mates."
Damn straight it is. Here's our pick of the best Sydney pubs to do just that this summer.
Bondi Beach Public Bar
Harvey Wallbangers, Southern Comfort, White Russians and gin and juice. This isn't the drinks list of a Central Coast biker bar in 1988, it's what Icebergs' Maurice Terzini is serving at his new Bondi pub opening in late December with a soundtrack of classic surf rock.
"It'll be an ode to '70s and '80s pub drinking culture," says the hospitality trailblazer who insists on making his own cola for cocktails instead of using post-mix Coke. "I want to offer customers the absolute best product I can."
"The double-patty Bondi Matty" squish burger at Bondi Beach Public Bar. Photo: Christopher Pearce
Located beachside on the corner of Curlewis Street and Campbell Parade, Bondi Beach Public Bar is set to be THE place for a delicious summer session. James Hird (Icebergs, The Dolphin) is on wine duties, with specially selected barrels and bottles specific to the venue. There will be a giant cabinet of pre-batched martinis, and Icebergs' chef Monty Koludrovic is primed to pump out pub food classics.
"We're doing the same thing as we did at The Dolphin and really upping the standard of what a public bar can be," says Terzini.
The counter meal carte will feature a "squish burger" inspired by the time Canadian chef Matty Matheson cooked at Icebergs and instructed staff to squish his burgers with their fists. "We're using actual weights to squish it into a nicely contained package though," says Koludrovic. "It's the 'double-patty Bondi Matty'."
Koludrovic will also tip his hat to Belles' chef Morgan McGlone with a dish named "Bella's hot chicken" (more or less Italian-spiced fried chook) and list a few lighter salads to meet local needs.
"We need to have healthy options because we're in Bondi," says Terzini. "I also really like idea of public bars becoming a family destination again – I think Justin [Hemmes] does that really well. My son is four years old and I want to feel comfortable bringing him into a public bar. Maybe not at midnight, yeah, but at five o'clock in the afternoon I want to bring my kid down for a bite to eat and not feel awkward about it."
Meanwhile, designer George Livissianis has been given a "pretty wild" brief for the interiors, says Terzini. "I told him to think [American fashion designer] Rick Owens goes to Palm Springs via Bondi."
203/180 Campbell Parade Bondi Beach, 02 9132 5777, bbpb.com.au (Opening late December)
Bert's at The Newport
Merivale's new-look Newport has been a roaring success since it opened in 2016, packed with locals sharing pizza and prawns in the beer garden every weekend.
The Newport's bucket of prawns. Photo: James Brickwood
Upmarket restaurant Bert's is set to start trading at The Newport in early January. Pitched as an "elegant, yet informal, modern brasserie", Bert's will have its own cocktail bar, oyster bar and wine room. A communal marble table is set to be the centrepiece of the kitchen, which will also house Basque grills and imported Spanish ovens.
Executive chef Jordan Toft (Coogee Pavilion) will oversee a coastal European menu that includes salads, terrines, grilled vegetables, dressed crab, charcoaled meats and grilled whole fish. (Northern Beaches locals can expect something similar when Toft takes over The Collaroy kitchen closer to March.)
Caviar service will also be part of the Bert's experience. Yep. Beluga and blinis at the pub. Welcome to the modern age.
2 Kalinya Street Newport, 02 9997 4900, merivale.com.au/thenewport
All hail the schnitzel king. The Unicorn is a pokie-free pub with great-value food showcasing producers such as Rangers Valley beef (hit the wagyu onglet if it's going) and Borrowdale free-range pork.
All hail the schnitzel king at The Unicorn. Photo: Supplied
There's a beaut beer garden with shady spots suited for smashing Australian natural wine and a pub schnitzel that might be the best in the country. Panko-crumbed Bannockburn chook breast is served with chicken fat-enhanced gravy and mashed potato you could put in a pillowcase and sleep on. Those panko crumbs plus a good innings in the deep-fryer means the schnitzel stands at attention with its still-attached wing saluting the sky. Tack on peas and honey carrots and you have a pub meal for the ages. Dessert is a game of darts.
The kitchen is also installing a wood-fire grill. "We want to push the Aussie barbecue element, so starting in December we'll be doing a mixed grill on the wood fire every Monday," says Smyth. "Home-made sausages and rissoles, heaps of lamb chops, some kidney, a little bit of steak, and a little bacon, covered in a fried egg and served with white bread."
106 Oxford Street Paddington, theunicornhotel.com.au
Chef Monty Koludrovic also leads the Aussie-Italo kitchen at this Surry Hills boozer that was one of the worst pubs in Sydney until Terzini relaunched it in 2016. The Dolphin is a multi-zoned fun land of natural Italian wine, hand-stretched pizzas and $2 ponies of ice-cold beer.
The Dolphin is a multi-zoned fun land of natural Italian wine. Photo: Dominic Lorrimer
The terrace is the place to be in summer, underneath black-and-white-striped umbrellas with locally-made mortadella in one hand and a pre-batched Delfino Negroni in the other. "I reckon we sell more negronis at The Dolphin than any bar or restaurant in the country," says Terzini.
412 Crown Street Surry Hills, 02 9331 4800, dolphinhotel.com.au
The White Cockatoo
This proud local positioned by Petersham train station was once famous for schnitzels the size of a small child. This was back when pub walls were nicotine-yellow and packets of Nobbys nuts hung like bunting above the bar. The Cockatoo underwent a major refurb in 2015 and it's now a clean-cut joint full of stained wood, exposed brick, Australiana trinkets and loads of natural light.
The White Cockatoo, Petersham, is now in the hands of the team behind The Henson. Photo: Alana Dimou
The team behind Marrickville's Henson Hotel took over the Cockatoo in September and the menu is now plump with seasonal vegetables and quality produce. There's a schnitzel still, but it is regulation-size and decked with "proper" leg-cut ham, fior di latte, sugo and parmesan.
Kids' meals are served with a side of grapes. More of this please, pubs everywhere.
30 Terminus Street Petersham, 02 9518 1488, whitecockatoohotel.com.au
A Sydney summer isn't complete without eating your weight in prawns and visiting the Courtie at least once for a jug of Young Henrys. The sun-dappled beer garden has backyard barbecue vibes while inside is cool and dark and perfect for watching cricket.
The Courthouse Hotel beer garden. For catching up with mates you wish you saw more often. Photo: Jennifer Soo
There's a kitchen, sure, but there's also many great restaurants around the corner on Enmore Road. This a place for commandeering a table and catching up with mates you wish you saw more often.
202 Australia Street Newtown, 02 9519 8273, solotel.com.au/venue-details/pub/courthouse-hotel
Mr Liquor's Dirty Italian Disco at the Tennyson Hotel
Yes, this is another Merivale joint, but Hemmes employs too much talent across his pubs to only include one venue on the list.
The Pinbone team of Mike Eggert, Jemma Whiteman and front-of-house star Berri Eggert opened Mr Liquor's Dirty Italian Disco in the Tennyson's drive-through bottle-shop in October. It's literally the coolest concept Merivale has ever launched: puffer jackets are supplied to navigate the fridge room in search of something fresh to match with Pinbone's Italian fun-time dishes. Don't miss the porchetta with charred scallions or gnocchetti rolling around with braised lamb and rosemary. Time your run right and the karaoke machine might be cranking, too.
Pinbone's Italian Disco is supposed to be a six-month-only summertime dance, however judging by how much Sydney diners have embraced it, there's every chance Mr Liquor will stay around longer than the sweltering heat.
952 Botany Road Mascot, 02 9240 3000, merivale.com.au/mrliquorsdirtyitaliandisco