Different flavours of pubs

Spend any decent amount of time in the pubs of our fair city and you will come across one with an old-time pub map up on the wall. These maps plot the location of all known pubs in a particular suburb since settlement. From memory the Mountain View Hotel in Richmond has one.

Williamstown Pub Map

This is one such pub map I came across in Williamstown. It's copyright but I've used a blurred photo so you can't make out the words.

The telling thing about these maps is the sheer number of pubs plotted on them -  they’re on every corner.  Pubs were obviously a very important part of Melbourne’s culture. As well, they were quite a profitable business venture.

Fast forward to today and only a fraction of these pubs still exist. Simply speaking, it’s now very difficult to turn a profit from beer sales alone. You see, back in the day your local was the only place you could buy alcohol. You couldn’t buy beer at a bottle shop to take home. If you wanted to drink, you went to the pub, there was no other choice. The mark up on beer was reasonable and that, coupled with the income derived from the accommodation many pub owners had upstairs, was enough to make a living. Today’s publicans have had to evolve to survive. This has resulted in the many and varied styles of pubs that we have to choose from when we take part in that hallowed Melbourne tradition, the pub session.

Enjoy the footy at the local

I loved this old pub in Williamstown. I felt like I had been transported back to the 1970s. I love that everyone is fixated on the footy too. As it should be!

Food

Food is the obvious one. Now, I’m not saying that pubs back in the day didn’t serve food (I’m still trying to research this. I’m interested in not only if they served food, but also, what kind of food) but food has now become more important than beer for many pubs. I tend to split these pubs into two categories, those that serve “traditional” pub food (think steak, pies and that Melbourne institution, the Parma) and the more upmarket Gastro Pubs. Many of the latter you could well argue have ceased to operate as pubs all together and are now polished and reputable restaurants operating out of the shell of what once was a pub.

A good example of a traditional pub food pub would be The Napier in Fitzroy. They do great steak and great burgers. When I think of gastro pubs The Bouzey Rouge in Richmond comes to mind.

Parma

Not sure where exactly I had this greasy parma. I can tell you it was amazing though.

Music

Surely music and pubs have always gone together? There is a difference between a guy in the corner playing acoustic guitar however and a full on live music venue. Most pubs these days seem to have found their own niche in the market. Some, often due to venue size and location, focus on singer-songwriters. Others are more your local rock acts. And a few have found a home as a venue of choice for touring national and international bands.

Many of these venues are fighting a new battle though. Their live music helped make inner city suburbs like Fitzroy and Carlton very cool places to live. However now that the neighbors are paying big bucks to live in such enviable suburbs, they complain that the music is too loud and people coming and going disturb their right to live in peace and quiet. As such, many pubs live in fear that their music could be shut down at any time.

The Tote

The Tote in Collingwood is a famous example of pub that's turned to music to survive.

I remember going to see a gig at a pub in North Fitzroy that used to have live music. The pub had run their house PA though a volume detector (sorry, they probably aren’t called that) so that if the band exceeded a set noise limit the mixing desk would go dead for a few minutes. Unfortunately this particular band though that was bullshit and found a way around the system. After a couple of songs the fuming owner came out and kicked them off stage, screaming that they could well cost the pub its ability to play live music if the neighbours complained again and possibly even risk their liquor license. She also added that they weren’t going to be paid for the gig. I’m not sure how much of this was idle threat, however, the venue certainly doesn’t have live music like it used to. The odd acoustic act is about all.

Good examples of live music pubs in Melbourne include The Tote, The Corner, The Prince of Wales and The Northcote Social Club.

Pokies/TAB

A little like with restaurants, it’s hard to know when a venue is a pub with a TAB and a few poker machines, and when you really have a bogan casino operating out of what used to be a fine pub. I can think of a few pubs that I really like where they have a TAB off to the side. However, I can think of more that have crossed over into your typical TAB that just happens to have beer on tap. I guess the difference for me is would you go there to catch up with friends and have a good afternoon, or night out, or would you only go there to put a tenner on the dog with the name that sounds the most like a death metal band?

Death Metal Dog
Photo courtesy of http://therothstanator.tumblr.com/post/4994590785/heavy-metal-dog-vest

I can understand why a struggling pub owner would go the pokies and/or TAB route. They’re probably the most profitable pubs in the state. Certainly the big footy clubs make sure they have their fair stake in them. And I’m not anti-gambling either. There is definitely a place for the TAB in Melbourne and around Cup Day you’ll probably find me in one (ok, that’s a lie, I have an online betting account these days*). It’s just a shame that many historical Melbourne public houses have lost their soul this way. I often drive past the Prince of Wales (the Richmond one, on Church Street) and wonder if it was once a great pub.

Accommodation

This makes sense as most of the old pubs in Melbourne used to have accommodation on their upper floors. This seems to be slowly coming back now. I like that the upper stories of these buildings are getting used again. However, this can go too far. I have nothing personally against Bev and Mick. I’ve never met them and I’m sure they are nice people. Nor do I begrudge them making a crust. However, a couple of really proud inner city pubs are now simply Backpackers’. I don’t think I’d even mind this, if only the once-beautiful facades weren’t now spashed with tacky painted advertising.

Nightclubs and Bars

While the markup on beer is slim, the markup on cocktails is pretty decent. Plus if you can tidy a place up, dazzle the youngsters with some pretty coloured lights and play some form of popular music then, bam, you have yourself a meat market… sorry, I mean nightclub. Silly me. The girls like to dance, the guys like the girls and everyone loves drinking expensive drinks. The only downside is that to keep the drug use and knife fights under control you do need to invest in a fair few neckless bouncers.

Bouncers
Photo courtsey of http://iamnotfromjerseyshore.blogspot.com/2011_04_01_archive.html

OK, maybe they aren’t all like that, but the truth is many former pubs are now nightclubs. There’s nothing wrong with this, I just cry a little inside every time I see a once beautiful old pub pimping itself out as a cheap club.

Boutique Beer Pubs

So, you can make a profit out of some beers (although all of these pubs also sell food, but I digress). This is actually a fairly recent chapter in Melbourne’s pub history. The craft/micro brewing craze has been building over the last few years, and there are several venues out there whose primary claim to fame is their rare beer.  This is quite a change. Not too long ago pubs served only one beer. These days pubs can often brag about how many beers they have on tap.

Beer Sampler

A paddle of beers from The Local Taphouse in St Kilda.

So, there you have it. These categories obviously aren’t absolute. There are plenty of music venues that also sell food, and gastro pubs with boutique beer, but in general, pretty much all the great old pubs of Melbourne have gone down at least one of these paths.

* Melbourne Pub Culture loves to have a good bet, but also endorses responsible gambling. If you continually find yourself betting on Port Adelaide for a win, please seek help here.

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