35 Erskineville Rd Erskineville, NSW 2043
|Opening hours||Mon-Thu noon-midnight, Fri-Sat noon-3am, Sun 11am-midnight|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Phone||02 9516 1766|
When was the last time you were treated to a male stripper between mouthfuls of coconut ceviche? Unless you've eaten at Erskineville's Imperial Hotel since it reopened in March, or requested the vegan option on a Wildboys Afloat cruise, I'm going to guess: never.
It's the latest joint to be transformed by Sydney Collective, the hospitality group founded by industry veteran Fraser Short. The Collective knows how to spit-polish a pub with the best of them and the Imperial is every bit as swish as portfolio mates Watsons Bay Boutique Hotel and The Morrison. It would want to be, with $6 million spent on redevelopment.
The Imperial has an LGBTQI-friendly history spanning decades, and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert was filmed here in 1993 (as the chipper and able staff will tell you at any opportunity).
It was also home to what the Herald described in 1992 as "Sydney's finest Thai restaurant" run by Prasit Pratteeprasen, a chef with legendary hairstyles ranging from plaited and beaded to a "truly aggro mohawk".
Design outfit Alexander and Co. has zip-zapped the 80-year-old bruiser into a Baja-Californian Renaissance palace. A fresco of rainbow clouds and Raphael-esque cherubs pops over a wood-panelled public bar engineered for schooners and late-night dancing, while a whitewashed courtyard is filled with floral umbrellas and noble ferns. The only gross thing is a VIP pokie room leaching off the main bar.
Priscillas, the hotel's Mexicali-channelling restaurant, is more than 70 per cent vegetarian. Most of the remaining dishes are seafood, with only slow-roasted pork ($44), wood-grilled achiote chicken ($26) and flash-fried wagyu ($24) flying the flag for land-based critters. Only three years ago this would have raised eyebrows but with the popularity of all things healthy and plant-based, a veg-focused pub menu feels like a perfectly normal thing to do in 2018.
Coconut ceviche ($14) sees the thinly sliced flesh of a wood-roasted coconut marinated in lime juice, jalapenos and coriander, garnished with radish and bolstered by a turmeric-kicking coconut curry. Is it ceviche? Absolutely not. Is it zingy and toasty and highly enjoyable with a side of blue corn chips? Yes. Yes it is.
Snapper tiradito ($22) is a more traditional ceviche, fresh and full of life with basil and tamari oil, grapefruit, lime and avocado.
A "crabless fritter" ($14) does a knock-out job impersonating one of those deep-fried fish cakes native to suburban takeaways. It's made with jackfruit, palm hearts and an Old Bay-riffing spice mix instead of processed catfish and mealy breadcrumbs.
Tack on a bowl of charred kale and broccoli hearts ($14) with almonds and agave vinaigrette and hey, presto: a top-notch vegetarian dinner that's not too heavy and not too light.
Half of the 40-odd wines are organic or biodynamic and most are straight-up crowd-pleasers in grape and style. Brave New Wine's 2017 Dreamland riesling ($75) from Great Southern, Western Australia, sticks out from the bunch, naturally fermented with bush herbs and beautifully unique.
The Felicity Frockaccino ($18 and named after a local drag queen) is my pick of a fruit-forward cocktail list, and the tarty mix of vodka, lemon juice and apple vodka makes it the perfect mate for ceviche – fish-based or otherwise. I have similar feelings towards a can of salty Nomad Salt & Pepper gose ($9) from the selection of 30-plus beers.
A promise of "Drag and Dine" is true to its word and you can expect high-calibre, high-heeled dancing throughout the night. It sure beats pub trivia projected via PowerPoint. There's a same-sex wedding chapel coming in 2019.
It's brilliant to see Sydney Collective in tune with the local community. Here's hoping Short and his mates show some real progressiveness and also call time on that horrible little VIP lounge where 20 pokies still spit, swallow, ding and whir. Blow up the bandits and I can see The Imperial becoming one of Sydney's great pubs. Everything else is in its rightful place.
If you only eat one thing Coconut ceviche ($14).
If you only drink one thing The Felicity Frockaccino ($18).