166 Johnston St Fitzroy, VIC 3065
|Opening hours||Sun - Thu 11 AM to 11 PM, Fri - Sat 11 AM to 1 AM|
|Features||Accepts bookings, Bar, Events, Groups, Licensed, Lunch specials, Long lunch, Private dining, Pub dining, Vegetarian friendly, Wheelchair access, Gluten-free options, Family friendly|
|Prices||Expensive (mains over $40)|
|Chef||Sean Donovan, Anna Quayle|
|Payments||eftpos, AMEX, Cash, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 9416 5055|
It's well worth getting around the history of Melbourne's pubs. Johnston Street alone has had murders, suicides and even a coronial inquest held in the nicely chilled cellar of the Rochie.
The history of the newly dubbed Fitzroy Town Hall Hotel, previously Town Hall Hotel Fitzroy, is less sketchy unless you count its sticky stint as the Purple Turtle. For the most part, it's spent the past 40 years propping up some lofty food ambitions.
Grainy pictures from the '70s show pepper grinders gracing the tables well ahead of the freshly cracked curve. Another shows Gabriel Gate – our original celebrity chef – doing a rock-star shift in the kitchen.
There were dark times, including the failed attempt to bring back fine dining in the early noughties, which had the Seward family handing over the lease after a 40-year reign. But Harry Lilai and his searing Italian regained the pub a hat, and now here's pub whisperer Sean Donovan and head chef Anna Quayle, ushering in a new era of wood-fired beef, with Middle Eastern and Italian trim.
You'll know Donovan's pub work from Footscray's Station Hotel and the Wayside Inn, venues defined by the chef's Michelin training melded with a healthy respect for what great pubs are about. Impeccable produce met servings the size of your head, and you knew that locals were the target audience, not a group to be re-trained. And so it is here.
By day you'll want to sit in the scraped brick sun-drenched conservatory that replaces the daggily carpeted dining room – a throwback to the structure from when this was McCoppins Wine Pub. It's a look somewhere between bistro and greenhouse, built for plates of charcuterie, oysters and the burrata that comes with a luminous dice of ripe heirloom tomatoes.
A more formal space is to the kitchen's left, all cerulean blue with black-and-white portraits, luxe Eames-style chairs, water buffalo horns and the odd bugle. It's an elegant room that makes the Billecart-Salmon champagne and wagyu bresaola curled around candied figs look at home, and the mid-2000s indie rock soundtrack seem an interesting choice.
It's generally a menu that ticks a lot of boxes without shaking cages. Here are cauliflower florets encased in crisp chickpea batter for running through baba ghanoush; there are giant tiger prawns, flamed on the red gum-fuelled grill and drenched in sweet butter and herbs.
Noteworthy, however, is a steak menu that appeases the guilt even meat fanatics increasingly feel when faced with a pervy parade of beef – where you pick from endless pedigrees and only prime cuts. Here, Donovan offers a short list of grill-loving fringe cuts (flat iron, hanger, rump cap, with one blowout 1.2-kilogram T-bone), all flavour matched to their own custom sides.
The blood-rich hanger steak comes with heirloom tomato salad for acidic cut. Flat iron – that flavoursome upper shoulder cut – arrives all pink and char-edged, paired to a roasted carrot medley and rosemary and parsley-infused goat's curd.
Strangely, you also get thick bearnaise or pepper sauce, which don't gel with the other sides, but work if you add giant, fluffy hand-cut chips that are basically roast potatoes finished in the fryer.
From the bar menu, the burger is for those who like the character of lean ground steaks in their patty and the pronounced taste of flames. Personally, I want a little more condiment contrast than caramelised onions, mayo, salad and cheese provide.
The memory of Lilai is also probably too fresh to make you run back to a bolognese dominated by tightly wound pasta springs with little discernible meat. A Sicilian fish stew is similarly mired with fregola and a tomato braise that lacks sparkle, though the snapper fillet, tiger prawns and mussels are all perfectly cooked.
But champagne and briny little Sydney rock oysters? Definitely. Boozy Friday steak with a crisp 3 Ravens chased by the delicately balanced creme caramel amped with kaffir lime and caramelised pineapple? That's got its place staked out in Fitzroy history.
Pro tip Book the cellar for parties of 15 or upstairs overlooking Fitzroy.
Go-to dish Flat iron steak with heritage carrots and goat's curd ($24).
Like this? The Marquis of Lorne, 411 George Street, Fitzroy: great food, still pubs like a pub.
Correction: An earlier version of this review referred to former Town Hall Hotel chef Harry Lilai as Henry Lilai. This was incorrect.