A pub was once a place of gravy-brown carpet, SKY racing and men "just popping down for a quick one" that was never quick and never one. Tuesday night was Ladies' Night (or rather two-for-one Breezer night), and children could entertain themselves by colouring in a serviette with a Keno pencil.
The ghost of indoor ciggies still haunts a few hotels but most pubs have evolved with the rest of the hospitality market. Craft beer is the new New, pokies have been banished to a VIP Lounge and dinner at the pub no longer means a pie-warmer pie and a mate muttering something about "I don't mind if you eat while I smoke".
Every pub has midweek and lunchtime specials where you can score a top feed and pinball change from $15. However, the quality and availability of such specials are more variable than the odds at Dapto greys, so here's a look at Sydney best $15-and-under pub grub, consistently available for the advertised price or less.
Black Angus Rump and Horseradish Cream $14
Dove & Olive
Sydney has more steak-night specials than you can poke a cattle prod at, but a good-quality cut for under $15 is rarely a menu mainstay. Enter the Dove & Olive, which serves up 220 grams of Australian Black Angus steak for $14 every day.
The 150-day grain-fed beef has decent flavour and a chew that's easy on the jaw. It's smothered in a thin gravy and served on a wooden board (as per the pub food manual), along with a dab of horseradish cream, shoestring fries and an organic leaf salad.
Besides great-value steak, this perpetually crammed pub offers an extensive menu with "a hint of American nostalgia", plus 24 rotating craft beers on tap, including a brew of the month selected at the Craft Beer Fight Club gatherings.
156 Devonshire Street, Surry Hills, 9699 6001
Dolsot Bibimbap $13
There's not much happening at this chrome-finished West Ryde pub, frequented mostly by old blokes whose exercise consists of the 10-yard TAB dash to get a bet in before Albion Park jumps.
Things heat up in the bistro with a menu that's a mix of Australian and Korean. Bypass the served-with-chips standards and head to the chef's recommendations where you'll find bulgogi (soy-marinated sliced beef), yookgaejang (soupy beef hotpot with potato noodles), al tang (spicy fish roe soup).
There are other places in Sydney where you can get a better $13 bibimbap with banchan but those places don't have Reschs on tap and a dedication to screening Italian football. The bibimbap is grade-A beer food. Steamed rice (crisp on the bottom thanks to its stone hotpot) topped with beef mince, carrot ribbons, sprouts, egg yolk, mushroom, and water spinach. "Bibim" means to mix so snap open those chopsticks and go to K-town combing ingredients.
18 West Parade, West Ryde, 9809 3709
Bangers and Mash $14
Boyles Sutherland Hotel
Bangers and mash isn't the most exotic dish and nor should it be. Hot, buttery mash, herb-heavy pork sausages, a ladle of peas and peppery gravy with slivers of onion. When these powers combine at Boyles Hotel they summon one of the great comfort foods of the Commonwealth.
The snags and squashed spud combo has been around since the 1920s, if not before. Black-and-white pictures of Sutherland woodchoppers and blacksmiths dress the walls of this popular pub and it's nice to think that 80 years ago these high-waisted chaps were drowning sausages in onion gravy similar to the fluoro-vested tradies that nurse schooners here today.
806 Old Princes Highway, Sutherland, 9521 2315
Fried Chicken with Red Eye Mayo $15
The Oxford Tavern
Deep frying things and serving them in plastic basket is a signature move of chef Jamie Thomas and the Drink'n'Dine Group, who also own The Norfolk, Forresters and Carrington hotels. That these pubs are kings of the $10 lunch special is some achievement considering they blew up the pokies yonks ago and, as a result, the ability to subsidise food costs through gambling.
The fried chicken at this former strip club in Petersham is, shock, horror, deboned. Whoah, now wait a minute, sunshine. Bones equal more taste right? Correct. But it's also neat to sink your teeth into fatty white bird with no concern about the avian skeletal system. If you want more flavour there's chicken salt in the condiments tray on each table. Chicken salt on fried chicken? Come in spinner.
The accompanying red eye mayo is a bit how-yer-going. Leave it and visit the condo tray again for a big lug of Rita's Hot Ass Sauce (nods to the Tavern's girly-bar past).
1 New Canterbury Road, Petersham, 8019 9351
Confit Duck Terrine $14
Four in Hand Hotel
At the black-and-white tiled Four in Hand, chef Colin Fassnidge has raised the standards of pub food in Sydney sky high.
We love the confit duck terrine studded with port-soaked sultanas and raisins, flecked with herbs and lifted by citrus, making it all at once rich, rustic and elegant. A generous slab sits atop a vibrant yellow house-made piccalilli that hums with turmeric, coriander and cumin, and crunches with still-firm vegies. Spread some onto a charred, buttery slab of Iggy's sourdough, and you've got yourself a damn fine lunch.
Honourable mention for the fish and citrus soup, which delivers a slap in the tastebuds with its silky blend of fish stock, tomato juice, orange juice, smoked paprika and cream.
105 Sutherland Street, Paddington, 9326 2254
Panzanella Salad $14
The Welcome Hotel
Daniel Mulligan was head chef at the two-hatted Pilu at Freshwater for eight years before he was snapped up by The Welcome Hotel during its rejuvenation in 2013.
The Welcome had another renovation in October and turned its golf-clubby dining room into a smart, modern Italian restaurant named Ajo. The food is steeped in Sardinian tradition and this flows through to the bar menu peppered with agreeable fare like beetroot and taleggio arancini and cotoletta (crumbed pork cutlet) with Italian coleslaw.
The panzanella salad is its own meal. A mix of cos, mozz, rough-cut tomato, slivers of cucumber, basil, capers and torn and toasted bread. The mozzarella, made from Australian buffalo milk, is a fresh and creamy afternoon delight.
91 Evans Street, Rozelle, 9810 1323
Charcoal BBQ Ox Tongue $11.90
The Fairfield Hotel
Fairfield is the place for barbecued meat. Turn a corner onto the main street and you're walloped by the smell of charcoal-grilled lamb, beef and chicken billowing out of the town's myriad Middle Eastern cafes.
The Fairfield Hotel's Green Peppercorn restaurant cooks authentic Lao and Thai food and boy, does it know how to grill protein too. The ox tongue is a highlight, thinly sliced and bursting with sweet and smoky flavours. It's served with "Mum's special" dipping sauce - a salty, sour potion with a kick of chilli. It is very good.
If the idea of offal is a bit much for a mid-week pub meal, Green Peppercorn also grills a beaut Northern Thai sausages, lamb cutlets with eggplant dip, and a whole marinated chook for only $24.90.
1 Hamilton Road, Fairfield, 9724 7842 (also at the Civic Hotel, Sydney)
New York Hot Dog $14
This is a pub with something for everyone. Cool and dark inside where inner westies talk Newtown Jets over local craft beer and bright and breezy outside where mum and dad can enjoy a tipple while the kids muck about in a ball-pit cubby house.
A massive renovation to the Henson in 2013 saw the introduction of reclaimed-wood, handsome tiles, and grid of potted succulents. The kitchen grows much of its own produce and works with nearby suppliers like Pepe Saya butter, Golden Cobra coffee, and Serendipity Ice Cream.
The Henson dog isn't an unnaturally pink two metre-long frankfurt on a bun staler than a Daryl Somers one-liner. The beef hot-dog is one of the few items not made in house by the Henson, supplied instead from artisan smallgood company Newbury and Watson. It's snug inside a crusty Sonoma roll and topped with carrot, cucumber, hand-grated cheddar, and those bits of fried onion commonly found garnishing noodles.
The Henson's help-yourself condiments cupboard is next-level. If you're keen for mustard there's Beaver brand Dijon, Jalapeno, and Coney Island flavours to squiggle on your dog (the Jalapeno variety is highly recommended). There's also loads of hot sauce and if you're one to pimp your chips up there's a shelf of flavoured salts like lime and cumin, smoked chilli, and something called ``rosemary rooster".
91 Illawarra Road, Marrickville, 9569 5858
House Baked Beans with Smoked Pork Rib $10
Charing Cross Hotel
Matt Kemp can bloody well cook. The former Balzac chef has helmed the kitchen of this (majorly) refurbished Waverley local since August and pumps out some of the best posh-pub-nosh in the east.
The dining room carte is good value (hello there, $22 gnocchi with chestnuts, cauliflower, peas and pecorino) but not quite $15 or under value. The bar menu, however, lists one of the all time great any-time-of-day foods: slow-cooked baked beans.
Proper cowboy style, these rich, soft and smoky beans are spooned over a hunk of grilled bread and a fall-apart pork rib before being delivered to the table with a serving suggestion of Tabasco. It's a solid breakfast, simple lunch, or light, late-night dinner.
81 Carrington Road, Waverley, 9389 3093
Salt-and-Pepper Lobster Roll $15
Manly Wharf Hotel
A soft roll with iceberg lettuce, mayonnaise and fleshy white meat is the taste of Australian summer - joined by butcher's-paper-wrapped prawns and burnt Boxing-Day-barbecue rissoles.
The Burger Liquor Lobster pop-up kiosk (which replaced Chur Burger at Manly Wharf Hotel) knows this. Forget the burgers and consider whether you want a Vietnamese roll stuffed with prawns or lobster. Actually stop considering and just order one of each.
A crusty roll with a conga-line of tiger prawns is a cute, fresh match to the hotel's white-washed wharf and endless-summer lunch vibe. However, the lobster roll scores a couple of extra points because 1. lobster rolls are generally awesome and 2. it's nice to eat a salt-and-pepper something that isn't squid. The only thing that would make it better is if the lobster was local and not imported but then it also wouldn't be $15.
21 East Esplanade, Manly, 9977 1266