An Ode to the Pub Meal

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There’s no shortage of delicious foods on offer in a multicultural city like Sydney. Whether you’re eating seafood at the Sydney Fish Markets, dining in style by the glittering waters of Darling Harbour, or mowing through some kung pao chicken in Haymarket’s Chinatown district – it’s safe to say that Sydney is a foodie’s wet dream.

But what if you’re on a slightly tighter budget? Or if you’re just feeling like something a little less sophisticated than fragrant Thai or spicy Korean BBQ?

That’s where the humble pub meal comes in. With a slew of options that generally weigh in somewhere between $10-$15, a pub meal is a hearty meal that won’t take too much out of your wallet. That’s a must for a backpacker on a budget.

The mainstays of Australian pub food are pretty universal. There’s the chicken schnitzel and its parmigiana cousin, salads, pizza, burgers, pasta, risotto, the ever present steak, and even a few desserts if you’re lucky. Coupled with a beer, preferably a local, it’s a recipe for a filling meal that doesn’t quite approach the usually high prices you’ll encounter elsewhere in the city. An Oscars and a schnitzel at the Stratton Hotel on Castlereagh Street in the CBD, for example, is going to set you back the princely sum of $13. That’s marginally more than a generic sub from around the corner at Subway.

The atmosphere at a pub offers up something pretty uniquely Australian too. There’s something very down to earth and laid back about a pub meal. The rattle of glasses being moved around, the occasional burst of raucous laughter from a local, and the tinkling tunes of the pokies make for a pretty unique soundscape.

The Best in Sydney

There’s no shortage of pubs with good menus in Sydney. Walk down almost any street in any suburb and you’re going to find a local pub who can offer up a good steak or schnitzel. But the best of the best? Well, here’s a few…

Hart’s Pub, The Rocks

With a fantastic selection of Australian brewed craft beers (try the Three Sheets or the Gold Digger) and a wonderful old timey atmosphere accentuated by a series of stenciled quotes about imbibing liquor – Hart’s Pub would be worth a visit even without its menu. But the menu is probably the biggest draw-card for me.

The spicy Cajun crocodile bites are to die for, and even the generic sounding bucket o’ fries is worth a look. I’ve yet to find better chips in Sydney. Then there’s the truly mouth watering burgers and the best dessert going – a big cookie served piping hot in the skillet with a big scoop of vanilla ice cream to finish.

Cajun Crocodile Bites at Hart's Pub

The menu at Hart’s has been revamped lately to include a few more tempting delights. Rocks Poppers, the Crocodile Burger, and the Boxer’s Roo all leap out from the menu as potential new favorites for me.

Hart’s might not be cheap (food ranges from $12-$22 and beers are roughly $9), but it’s worth a look. It’s by far my favorite Sydney bar.

Four Pines Brewery, Manly

Located on the waterfront in beautiful Manly, Four Pines Brewery serves up its own selection of in house craft beers coupled with a great menu of pub staples. The hefeweizen and kolsch are my favorite of the beers, but there’s a sampler on offer that will help you decide which libation best suits.

Lunch offers up a series of affordable ($13) burgers that hit the spot, and there’s plenty of mains (ranging from $20-$29) to choose from as well. My personal favorites have been the Ploughman’s Platter or the Chicken Pie, and the sticky date pudding is to die for if you’re looking for a dessert.

Lunch at Four Pines Brewery in 2010

Four Pines also has daily meal and beer specials, so there’s always something new to try. Again, it’s pricier than your average pub fare, but you’re getting restaurant quality food.

The Stratton, CBD

The previous two offerings have been for those on a much higher budget, so let me take things back a little with the more affordable Stratton Hotel on Castlereagh. With $3 Oscars lager available until 7pm (and even then it only jumps up to $4) it’s not going to break the bank. The added bonus? I’m there most Fridays!

The highlight of the menu for the budget conscious will be the $10 menu – which includes wraps, a pretty impressive parmigiana, a rump steak that my co-workers swear by, and the Aussie icon of calamari and chips.

Feeling a little fancier? There’s a rich and creamy boscaoila for $14, a spicy Portuguese chicken burger for $14, or a more traditional fish and chips for $14. There’s also deep fried ice cream at $6 if you’re looking to indulge your sweet tooth.

My favorite part about Stratton’s is the staff though. Flirty Trudy will always have a saucy comment for you and Olivia and I have had many a chat about Korea when the bar’s quieted down some. Centrally located and cheap as chips, Stratton is a great lunch or dinner option at the heart of the city.

Special mention also goes to the Stratton’s sister pub, Sweeney’s. I’ve still yet to find a better Padang Curry in the city.

Best Padang in the city at Hotel Sweeney's in the CBD.

Strawberry Hills Hotel, Surry Hills

My local when I worked for Telstra in 2010, the Strawberry Hills transformed seemingly overnight from dingy dive to upscale eatery. One of the venues for my farewell shenanigans when I jetted out for Korea earlier this year, the Strawb’ (as it is affectionately known) offers mains ranging from $12-$15.

A fantastic burger at the Strawberry Hills Hotel

The pick of the menu include the lamb shanks in old port ($15), the twice cooked pork belly ($15), and the classic chicken burger ($12.50). The upstairs eatery area is pleasant and the beers downstairs are pretty cheap to boot.

The Strawberry Hills is a short walk from Central Station and a range of backpacker hostels. Definitely worth a gander.

The Sugar Mill, King’s Cross

A slightly trendier option in Sydney’s night life mecca, Sugar Mill boasts a blend of corner pub and the trendier trappings associated with its location. While most pubs tend to hide their cocktail menu for fear of reprisals from angry locals, the Sugar Mill offers up a range of cocktails at the Sydney standard $14.

A decadent $16.50 all day breakfast is a highlight in my eyes, and there’s also an extensive array of steak and schnitzel options starting at $10 and working their way up to $27.50 for a milk fed Black Angus T-Bone.

A favorite amongst locals, the Sugar Mill offers a bit of everything regardless of your budget or mindset. Worth a look.

Elephant Cafe, Woolloomoolo

Not far from the famous Domain in the heart of Sydney, the Elephant Cafe (attached to the Elephant Hostel for my backpacking readers) offered up what has been, to-date, the best chicken parmigiana I’ve had while living in Sydney.

Holy amazing chicken parmigiana, batman!

As if that wasn’t lure enough, there are two ‘Aussie’ items on the menu that I need to go back and try. The Australian Salad looked amazing as my friend Heather (from The Kimchi Chronicles) sunk her teeth into it. Sundried tomatoes, macadamia, beetroot jus, and caramelized pineapple? Yes, please!

And the Aussie pizza, complete with macadamia and kangaroo meat, looks a winner too. I might just head back down later today…

Bazaar, St Leonards

In a bit of a change of pace, Bazaar is a Czech bar and eatery. Like Four Pines and Hart’s, you’re going to be paying a little extra for your grub here – but when the menu includes veal goulash and sauerkraut dumplings, you won’t be so put off by the prices.

The true lure of Bazaar is the beer though and at $5, you’re going to be able to indulge in a few beers without emptying your wallet.

Bazaar isn’t the only European option for Sydneysiders either. The Belgian Bier Cafe chain has locations all over the city for your drinking and eating pleasure.

In Closing…

The above represent the very tip of the iceberg. I’ve obviously highlighted a few of the pricier options, but I’m lucky enough to live and work in Sydney. I can afford the occasional splurge on a fancier pub meal.

Truth is, if you’re looking for a cheap meal, you’ll find one at virtually every single pub in the city. Just walk up and you’ll doubtlessly see a chalkboard boasting a few affordable lunchtime specials. Strike up a conversation with the staff and Bob’s your uncle – you’ve had a dinky di Aussie experience!

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