A typical pub menu covers all the classics from chicken parmi to wedges with sweet chilli sauce and sour cream and of course, steak night. The staple dishes are straightforward, unfussy and have been treasured by the Australian public for years. But things began to change back in 1991 when the term gastropub was coined in the UK, which references a venue that offers high-quality food a step above your average schnitzel and chips.

Pubs and breweries in Australia have held onto the concept, with venues across the country putting their own spin on elevating pub grub that draws customers in as much as their booze offering.

Hospitality talks to the Waterloo Inn’s Zac Green and The Bob Hawke Beer & Leisure Centre’s Nathan Lennon and Nicholas Wong about creating unique experiences that draw in every kind of diner.

Head Chef Zac Green teamed up with his wife and business partner Alex Sumner to give the Waterloo Inn a new start. At first glance, it looked like a textbook pub, but the pair saw the potential to create a casual drinking and dining destination in Swansea, Tasmania.

“It was meticulously maintained, but had no customers,” says Green. “There was a beautiful pool table, original bingo-style leather chairs, terrible artworks and curtains and an original menu board. It was a weird prospect to take it over and we had no real expectations, but then something clicked for the general clientele.”

The Waterloo Inn

Customers were no doubt intrigued by the menu, which is described as “unpretentious dining” and “food you want to eat without being tripped up too much”. Patrons rarely see the same dish twice, and Green wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Our best menus are designed at the eleventh hour,” he says. “A dish or two will change depending on what we run out of and whether I’ve got something new to move on to.”

Seasonality plays a big role in Green’s approach to cooking. For the most part, ingredients are sourced from local Tasmanian producers. “I generally try to stick to Tasmanian produce,” says the chef. “I’m definitely inspired by the seasons and what is available locally as well as what’s growing in my own garden.”

An example is a dish that sees eggs from Green’s chickens topped with a leek vinaigrette. “The leaks were donated from a friend who had them growing amongst her asparagus and she treated them as weeds,” says the chef.

The beer battered oysters have also had their time in the limelight, with the dish inspired by other gastropubs. “I used to go to a bar in Melbourne called The Last Jar,” explains Green. “It’s an Irish pub and the food was amazing. There would always be something like rabbit or pork trotters and you could get Guinness-fried battered oysters. At some point, I thought it’d be good to do a battered oyster and then things progressed from there.”

Gastropubs are ever-present in Sydney, but The Lucky Prawn at The Bob Hawke Beer & Leisure Centre in Marrickville has turned the Euro-centric concept on its head. Hawke’s Brewing Co. opened a restaurant and pub space to the public earlier this year with the intention of creating a multifaceted experience for visitors.

“As a beer company, a sense of home is incredibly important,” says Co-Founder Nathan Lennon. “Essentially, it’s a place to not only brew beer, but where people can come and drink it straight from the source.”

In collaboration with business partner David Gibson, Lennon brainstormed food concepts that would work with the venue. “We were initially thinking food trucks like every other brewery,” he says, “but when you consider 200 to 300 people being in the venue, food trucks start to become challenging [when it comes to] service. What story does that allow you to tell apart from community engagement? It made us reconsider and take control of our food, [creating] a really clear narrative.”

Soon after, the pair came up with an idea that would align with the Hawke’s brand a Chinese bistro. “It didn’t take David and I long to land on a regional Chinese Australian bistro offering because it felt incredibly authentic to the 1980s, which is what we are representing,” says Lennon. “It’s a super nostalgic cuisine that felt almost as Australian as anything else we could think of in terms of our own experiences growing up.”

The venue brought on Nicholas Wong (ex-Cho Cho San and CicciaBella) as head chef of The Lucky Prawn. The menu is reminiscent of what you would find at a Chinese bistro at a local bowling club and includes dishes such as prawn toast, sang choy bao, wontons and sweet and sour pork.

“A good variety of menu items balance light and fresh ingredients with a hint of nostalgia,” says Wong. “We are honest in our approach to this style of food, simply because we love eating it so much ourselves.”

Wong sticks to Cantonese cookery when it comes to the dishes, with the restaurant sourcing select ingredients from local businesses in Marrickville. “We get the bread for the prawn toast directly across the road,” says Wong. “The dumplings are made by Lai Shing Dim Sum Factory (which is only 200m from the Leisure Centre); our fermented fried bread used to mop up the XO pipi sauce is a by-product of Brickfields next door and our chefs frequent Marrickville Asian grocers for top-notch vegetables.”

Besides the food, the main drawcard of a pub is its beverage selection. At the Waterloo Inn, natural wines complement the culinary approach. “Natural wines are expressions of particular seasons, grapes, vineyards and winemakers that capture a time and place,” says Green. “They’re not generic products, and I feel like it matches the food. It’s generally on for a short time, not a long time.”

The wine list constantly evolves and demonstrates the best makers in the state and beyond. “We have a selection of local wines on and a lot of them are from the East Coast,” says Green. “Some of them are from good friends of ours, so we’re happy to showcase their wines. We try and tie the whole [list] into being local to the area just as the food is. Natural wines are unadulterated and aren’t mucked around with too much like the food.

Beer is of course the drink of choice at Hawke’s, and in the spirit of the late Prime Minister Bob Hawke himself, nothing goes better with beer than a Chinese meal. “Chinese food matches really well with beer,” says Lennon. “Dishes like hot numbing chicken wings get your mouth watering because it’s a mix of saltiness and spice, which makes you want to grab a lager on tap.”

Many people go to a brewery taproom for the sole purpose of drinking beer, but Hawke’s provides the experience and more at The Lucky Prawn. “Your expectation when you create a taproom attached to a brewery is that everyone will go there because they’re a beer lover who wants to taste the beers on tap,” says Lennon. “But we’ve found a really nice mix of patrons who are coming in on the back of wanting to sit down for a Chinese meal at The Lucky Prawn.”

Share plates surpassed being a trend in restaurants many years ago, and the same can be said for the pub scene. The Waterloo Inn and The Lucky Prawn both encourage diners to split dishes and believe it fosters a sense of togetherness among patrons.

“There’s a lot of people that aren’t familiar with the concept of sharing in this area,” says Green. “It’s amazing how the ideas have been prominent in Sydney and Melbourne for a long time, but it hasn’t really cut through here. I think the most heart-warming thing I see is when people who have come in once before get their heads around the concept of sharing food. And then they come in again and start repeating the words I said to them the first time around such as, ‘The menu changes; it’s seasonal and it’s a one-chef kitchen’.”

When it comes to menu design, share plates bring a lot more to the table when it comes to setting an overall vibe. “When you go to traditional pubs, you get a parmi and eat it yourself,” says Lennon. “We like share plates because they’re connected to group fun. It’s great to come in with a group of friends or family and order 10 things off the menu to share. I think, inherently, that’s what Chinese cuisine is all about.”

The expectations for pub restaurants have changed for good, with the Waterloo Inn giving locals the chance to try something new. “You’ve [still] got your bread-and-butter Tasmanians that do a pint and a parmy, but that’s not what we do and that’s okay because there’s another pub down the road that does exactly that,” says Green. “But then there’s the other group of people who retired to Swansea and want something different and interesting.”

Pub environments elicit a sense of familiarity, which is what Hawke’s is leaning into. “Coming out to the other side of the pandemic, people want to be out in groups more,” says Lennon. “It’s about creating an experience that facilitates people getting back out there with friends. We give them a pub-style experience, but do it in our own way with our own storytelling.”