129 Dowling St Woolloomooloo, NSW 2011
|Opening hours||Pub from noon daily; brasserie Mon-Wed 5.30-9.30pm; Thu 5-11.30pm; Fri-Sat noon-late; Sun noon-10pm|
|Features||Pub dining, Licensed, Bar, Pre-post-theatre, Accepts bookings, Outdoor seating|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||02 9356 3848|
There are certain things we demand from our pubs, and one of them is that they do not change. Please don't reinvent yourself, get rid of the original tiles, change trivia night from Wednesday to Thursday, or be turned into apartments. You're a pub. You have to be there for us. We need you.
So there was a frisson of fear in the air when The Old Fitz in Woolloomooloo went into lockdown last year. Chef Nik Hill and his ploughman's loaf and pig's head and cheddar jaffle left, the adjoining little jewel of a playhouse was temporarily shuttered, and then the pub changed hands.
But this is a story of resilience, regeneration, and hope. You can't keep a good pub down. New owners, W. Property, engaged new operators, Odd Culture Group, who engaged young chef Anna Ugarte-Carral, a Josephine Pignolet Young Chef of the Year award winner with Hubert, Firedoor, and Momofuku Seiobo on her CV.
Changes are being rung, from laying white cloths on the tables in the upstairs dining room, now called Brasserie Fitz, to doing a pre-theatre menu for next door. Other things remain the same, however; the snug wood-lined bar, the steep wooden stairs, the gloriously claret-coloured walls hung haphazardly with an auction lot of framed sailing ships and hunting hounds; the chandeliers hanging from the pressed metal ceiling.
At this stage, the menu is the same whether you're upstairs, or sitting out on the street. General manager Adam van den Bok runs a bright and friendly team, and there's an option to order by QR code if you don't want to deal with real people.
Ugarte-Carral has put together half a dozen starters and main courses that range from the straight-up (steak frites) to the punk (raw tuna with fig cream on brioche).
Where there is luxury produce, it is made to go a long way, so don't expect a pile of honey bugs (WA's whitetail bug, or slipper lobster) with the honey bug fregola ($22). Instead, the pearly meat is chopped through the tiny balls of pasta, connected by a bisque-like sauce made from the shells; so that every mouthful is sweet, toasty and creamy. It's a keeper.
Similarly, a prawn and anchovy salad ($26) sees the prawn meat – beautifully cooked – tossed through chopped lettuce informed, rather than heavily influenced, by anchovy. An octopus terrine ($19) is unexciting, the mosaic of tentacles not quite holding together.
At night, the biggest order is steak frites, salad and a bottle of red – so reassuring, it's practically a vaccination. A seared, grain-fed 250g Black Onyx bavette ($28) comes pink and glistening inside, and darkly crusty outside, smothered in an avalanche of skinny, skin-on fries. Liver butter gives a cheeky nod to the '70s' Tournedos Rossini.
An organic, aromatic 2019 Pleine Tete beaujolais villages from Baptiste Bertrand ($88) proves a bit lightweight for the dish, but there's a juicier, earthier 2018 Sigurd grenache, syrah, carignan, mourvedre blend from the Barossa Valley ($16/$76) that would cope.
The fish is fabulous. There's a relaxed, almost gelled beauty to fingers of Murray cod ($32), yet the skin is like crackling, with more crunch from scrunched-up nuggets of potato roesti. That fish is now John dory with its own accompaniments, but the sensitivity with cooking times is a good sign.
And what's with the comeback of the Viennetta? Gelato Messina and Mimi's in Coogee have done it, and now The Old Fitz is sending out a wedge of creamy ice-cream parfait ($12) criss-crossed with nuts and chocolate. It's fun, and like the original, the topping is the best part.
So yes, the pub has changed, but let's call it evolution. The Old Fitz has been around for more than 160 years, and will survive even an influx of young creatives determined to turn the inner east into the inner west, and a young star chef in the making. Who knows, it might even thrive.
Open Pub from noon daily; brasserie Mon-Wed 5.30-9.30pm; Thu 5-11.30pm; Fri-Sat noon-late; Sun noon-10pm.
Vegetarian Options available – ask when you order.
Drinks Good line-up of crafty beers on tap, and a meticulous list of prime-time Italian, French and Australian wines.
Pro tip Trivia night is held in the bar every Wednesday.