The Tramway Hotel, Fitzroy North – Keepin’ it Real, Keepin’ it Local

I first discovered The Tramway Hotel about six years ago. I’d been living just around the corner for a few years and couldn’t believe this pub was so close, for so long, and I’d never known. I went there just the once. My impression of the place was that it was rather small and empty. There was nothing really wrong with it; it just paled a little in comparison to a lot of Fitzroy’s more character-filled pubs. It was really quiet the night I went there. The food was okay, but I think the main reason I haven’t been back since is that it just seemed to lack any unique personality. There was no atmosphere, no mood.

My how things have changed.

Front Doors

Front Doors

I went back last week to talk to Chris, one of the current owners of the Tramway, along with Jess, the bar manager, and Warwick. Chris has been coming to the pub for years. Back when music was his main passion he used to come to the Tramway regularly for a beer with friends and to play trivia. Ever since he’s had a thing for this hidden local.

Painting of The Tramway

Painting of The Tramway

The three partners took over the running of the pub on new year’s day 2011 and they’ve been building their business ever since. What they’ve created is a local pub that Fitzroy North residents have really taken to heart. You see, The Tramway Hotel’s vision isn’t to become the new fashionable place in Fitzroy, or to become an expensive gastro-pub with a three month wait list to get in. Chris’ vision is simple: to be a traditional-style pub that local residents can be proud of. And it’s working. Chris and the other owners don’t do any formal advertising, they rely purely on word-of-mouth to attract people. Judging by the night I was there people are more than willing to spread the good word.

The Tramway Bar

The Tramway Bar

The whole time I was there I was trying to put my finger on what exactly has changed since my last visit. The place in many was looks the same, yet it’s now oozing character. The pub is a living dinosaur in many ways: a relic of the days when each block had its own local pub that residents went to most nights of the week for a beer, meal, and a quick catch-up with the neighbours.

One of the first questions I had for Chris was why is this place called the Tramway? It’s hidden in a backstreet a fair way from any of the tram lines in the area. Well, it turns out this wasn’t always the case. A long time ago, back when trams were pulled by horses, there was a tram line that went by the front of the pub. Not only that, but the area out the back of the pub, now utilized for extra storage, was where the tram horses were stabled. Now, I don’t want to get all nostalgic on you, but that’s such a cool fact! When you’re in The Tramway Hotel think about all the changes that have taken place in Fitzroy in the pub’s 140-odd year history. Yet through all of it generations of punters have been coming to this local for a quiet beer. Does anyone else find this remarkable?

The facade

The facade

When thinking about what kind of food they wanted to offer their patrons, Chris said they wanted to do unpretentious pub fare. However, they wanted to do it well and they were very conscious of keeping it affordable. What their chef Nick has produced is a simple menu with some of the best pub style food in Melbourne. What makes it even more impressive is that most items on the menu come in at around $16-$18.

Fun and games

Fun and games

Now, I tend to find most pub style food a bit meh. Usually there’s a burger, a parma, a couple of traditional salads, nothing really to write (blog?) home about. To understand why the food at the Tramway is so good you really have to try it. When I visited I’d been reading on Twitter about the Tramway’s Pulled Pork Sandwich. I was curious. It doesn’t sound like anything ground-breaking. Surely there are only so many things you can do to sex up a sandwich?

Well, I stand corrected. This simple sandwich is definitely worthy of all the electro-hype that preceded it. I won’t do the injustice of trying to describe the taste with inadequate words. What I will say is that the meat had obviously been slow cooked and tastes un-freakin-believeable. It also comes with coleslaw, which compliments the pork perfectly. Finally, it’s served with some of the best rustic-style chips I’ve had in a long while. Oh, and there’s a side of apple sauce that sets the whole thing off. It’s just a sandwich, but when you’re checking out the Tramway you MUST try it. Chris tells me it was a menu special at first, but the feedback has been so overwhelming they’ve moved it to the permanent menu.

I was also impressed by the beer on tap at the Tramway. It seems these days there are two types of pubs: those who keep traditional beers on tap, and those who embrace the recent change in taste towards craft beer. Tramway seems to sit nicely between the two. They have eight beers on tap – Coopers for the old-school punter, then a few of the more popular craft beers, such as Mountain Goat, Cricketers Arms and White Rabbit for the new generation. Then there’s cider for those who are that way inclined, and two guest taps which are rotated regularly for those seeking something new. I was stoked to finally get to try 2Brothers Kung Foo (I’m a big 2Brothers fan but hadn’t tried this latest brew) and Boatrocker Hoppbier for the hopp lovers out there (and I know you’re out there, hopp-ie beers are the duck’s nuts on Twitter at the moment). Chris says the guest beers have been a big hit. So much so that it can be hard to take a beer off tap when the time comes because people keep asking for it.

Did you notice anything missing from the beers on tap? Don’t worry, if you just can’t go without your CUB fix they keep a couple of Carlton Draught bottles in the fridge for emergencies.

Some of the beer on offer

Some of the beer on offer

Pubs aren’t all about beer these days though. It seems that a thorough wine list is every bit as important to the modern pub as the beers on tap. The Tramway has this covered too. Jess, the pub’s manager, just happens to have a wine background. So you know the wine list is going to have had a lot of thought and attention go into it.

One of the things that drew me to write an article about the Tramway is the fact that they’re constantly popping up in my Twitter feed. Pubs have been in Melbourne for 160 years, but social media has only really become part of the culture in the last decade… and even then a pub that utilizes Twitter and Facebook is still the exception rather than the norm. I asked Chris, the voice behind their Twitter account, why they choose to use social media. It turns out he discovered the value of Twitter when he was one of the owners of Polyester Records. Back then he would often tweet about the new albums they had just received and then sell twenty of those albums that afternoon. The pub business is a little different. He doesn’t have new stock to promote each week. However, social media is clearly still reaching people. He points to the recent success of their Pulled Pork Sandwich as an example. A number of people tweeted about how good it was and now every second person is ordering it. They also love the instant feedback they get from Twitter. A positive comment lets them know they are doing something right and that their patrons appreciate what they do.

Out the back

Out the back

When I asked what seasonal events the Tramway participates in I managed to get a bit of an exclusive. It hasn’t been announced but the pub will be taking part in State of Origin for Good Beer Week (May 12-19). Tramway will be one of eight pubs participating with each pub using all their taps to feature standout microbrews from a different designated state. Now I can’t tell you which state the Tramway will be representing, but let’s just say they’re still pretty pissed at Melbourne for stealing their Grand Prix… too obvious?

Other things of note about the Tramway:

While it’s not really a live music venue, Chris’ passion for music still shows through if you know where to look (or listen). The Tramway proudly plays all albums in full, rather than just mixing up a playlist of individual songs.

Behind the bar

Behind the bar

They’ve got an initiative in the works to use their wall space for local artists to feature and sell their work. It’s just another way the pub is keepin’ it local.

They don’t really do big functions, but if your group is the right size the corner around the side can be set aside for you.

So that’s the Tramway. Thank you to Chris for giving me his time, to Jess for pouring me beer, and to Nick… we haven’t met, but I’m a big fan of what comes out of your kitchen. I look forward to seeing you again in the not-too-distant future.

You can follow the Tramway on Facebook here, or follow @tramwayhotel on Twitter.

Tram above the front door

Tram above the front door

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