Ten classic Australian pub foods

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The classic combo of pub burger and beer at the East Village Hotel in Balmain.
The classic combo of pub burger and beer at the East Village Hotel in Balmain. Photo: Steven Siewert

The Australia pub menu is a marvellous thing. Reliable, well-priced and comfortingly familiar no matter which watering hole in the country you find yourself in.

Some counter meals have largely left us over the decades - lamb's fry has been replaced by chicken wings, the pork slider is the new prawn cocktail. However, many dishes are still at the bar, regardless of whether they need a taxi called or not.

Calamari rings

Hoops of deep-fried, breaded calamari were on every pub menu in the 1980s. At most city pubs the reconstituted rubber ring has been replaced by its posh relative, salt-and-pepper squid.

Salt-and-pepper squid at the pub is great - I consider myself  a connoisseur of the stuff - but there's something very satisfying about pinching a calamari ring into a figure-eight and dipping it into tartar sauce. This satisfaction is tripled when nursing a beer on a summer afternoon. Ocean views are optional. Lemon wedge is not.

The "Insert Pub Name Here" burger

The same thing from Broome to Bendigo whether it's a Union, Commercial or Excelsior Burger. A heaving toasted-bun of meat, lettuce, tomato, beetroot, onion and packet cheese. Bacon can be a welcome surprise, egg not so much.

The 1990s trend was to serve the pub burger "open", forcing the diner to Lego their dinner together and encouraging picky children to remove everything from the plate that didn't start life as a cow. Today's serving suggestion involves stacking the burger as high as gravity allows and stabbing it with a knife.

The ultimate share plate?  Potato wedges.
The ultimate share plate? Potato wedges. Photo: Marina Oliphant

Whatever happened to the little toothpick-flags pubs would colonise their buns with? Much more civilised.

Roast of the day

Roast du jour dates back to the 1870s when hotels would put on a free spread of goose, lamb and other farm favourites with sides of fruit, vegetables and salad. Christmas Day, every day!

Pubs originally offered free bread and cheese to sober up shickered gold-panners, but when the number of licensed premises began to increase, so did competition for the public's custom. Eventually these on-the-house banquets got so out of control the pubs couldn't afford them any more and Babette-level feasting at the boozer was over by the World War I.

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Cut to current day and most pubs still offer cracking Sunday roast specials. Kudos to an establishment rotating its roast meat both weekly and on a spit.

The mixed grill

A hard-earned thirst needs a big cold beer. And a big cold beer needs a mixed grill.

Local variations of the mixed grill are many but the usual suspects include steak (minute or T-bone will do), lamb chops, sausages, bacon, fried egg and chips. Health-conscious pubs might throw a grilled tomato in.

A pub classic ... the chicken parmigiana.
A pub classic ... the chicken parmigiana. Photo: Marina Oliphant

Mixed grills in the city are a dying breed and the ones that do exist have often been dolled up with wagyu something something and salsa verde. This is missing the point. A traditional mixed grill should be a plate of chook-raffle chops accompanied by VB.

Wedges with sweet chilli and sour cream

Potato wedges are the original share plate, around long before there was slow-cooked lamb-shoulder on a wooden board. Rising to popularity in the 1990s, a bowl of wedges is still perfect beer-fodder to dive into with a couple of mates before actual dinner.

Other pioneering share plates - and ones less likely to burn skin from the roof of your mouth - include the splayed packet of Burger Rings, garlic bread and chips swimming in enough gravy to drown a bunyip.

Chicken parmigiana

I'm going to put my hand up here - I don't get it. Chicken schnitzel, I get. It's simple, filling, go-to food - inoffensive with a squeeze of lemon and side of veg. But chicken and tomato, I've never been fussed on as combo; less so chicken and cheese, unless someone's throwing a Twisties party).

A lot of people do like a chicken parma, otherwise it wouldn't be advertised outside 90 per cent of Victorian pubs. It's less ubiquitous in NSW however I remember a pub in Newcastle that used to do a "Meat-lovers pizza parma". It was a schnitzel suffocated in ham, cheese, tomato and bonus cabanossi and it looked like the Elephant Man with acne.

Steak

Chips and salad or veg and mash?

When in doubt of a pub's kitchen credentials, go the steak. Unlike that fish laksa you're considering, the worst thing that can happen is the steak will be overcooked (pub steak is invariably overcooked anyway and I find the best way to counter this by ordering one level of rare under what you want. Even then it's a dice-roll).

Steak has been a mainstay of pubs since the mid 20th century. Victoria loves its porterhouse, NSW its rump, and many modern-day pubs offer one or two choices of steak above these standards. With the importance placed on meat quality and provenance these days, steak at the pub has never been better - especially in regional areas where cousins of your lunch can be found frollicking down the road.

Now, pepper, gravy or Diane?

Prawns on anything

"You know what this pizza / steak / schnitzel / pasta / jacket potato / curry / martini glass of iceberg lettuce needs? Prawns!"

No, it doesn't.

Surf'n'turf should hang 10 all the way back to the salad bars of the 1970s it came from. Why is it still a thing? Who is ordering it? "Kitsch factor" has a lot to answer for.

Also, the only thing worse than prawns on a schnitzel is pineapple on a schnitzel. I assume the two coexisted on the same schnitzel island at one point, probably shaded by a parma umbrella.

Fish and chips

No other pub staple varies in quality like fish and chips except, maybe, Toohey's Old.

At one end of the scale there's fresh, snow-white fish, perfectly steamed in a sarcophagus of batter and served with chips noisy on the outside and fluffy within.

Then you have the chips that, by way of ancient magic, manage to be both soggy and undercooked. These usually accompany a frozen, tasteless basa fillet, fried in batter with more holes than The Shawshank Redemption screenplay (how did he replace that poster?)

I'm a big fan of the beer-batter namedrop. "Coopers-battered flathead fillets", "IPA-battered chips", and so on. If anyone can tell me, in a blind tasting, what beer is used in a batter after it's been immolated at 195 degrees, I will buy them a six pack of same.

Nachos

The worst person at the pub is the person who orders 10 Jagerbombs after you've both approached the bar at the same time and all you wanted was a Carlton Draught.

The second-worst person is the friend-of-a-friend who gabbers on about how Tex-Mex isn't traditional Mexican and "SoCal style" is much more authentic. Hush, and let me enjoy my cheesy, delicious corn chips in peace.    

Other honourable counter classics

Lamb cutlets, crumbed and fried.

Pot pie. Sometimes brilliant, sometimes the product of a chef who couldn't be bothered making pastry.

Bangers and mash. All the better with mushy peas, caramelised onion, and gravy.

Lamb shanks. A pox on any pub that only puts one shank on the plate.

Caesar salad swamped in a minimum one litre of dressing.

Woodfired pizza. Hold the prawns.

Lasagne. Garden salad and chips are ideal plate-mates.  

Spaghetti bolognese. Be wary of powdered parmesan making an appearance.

Steak sandwich. Focaccia has replaced Tip Top as the bread of choice.

Vegetarian penne. Traditionally a couple of olives, a bit of capsicum and leftover parma sauce.

The salad bar. Big in the 1970s and involving much in the way of mixed-beans and rice.