Gastropubs, much like pubs themselves, are a rare and precious thing in Brisbane.
The city, defined by its sprawl, could never support a pub on every corner like the southern capitals. When big supermarket operators bought into local pubs in the middle of last decade, they created a loose network of homogenised venues across town. Smaller independent operators became hard to find.
Tom Sanceau of London Fields remembers arriving in Brisbane eight years ago with business partner Bonnie Shearston. “There wasn’t really anything like a gastropub,” he says. “There were these big hotels catering to mass drinking culture. They might have a small eatery or cafe attached, but there wasn’t much soul or heart.”
Sanceau cut his hospitality teeth working in gastropubs in London and traces the trend back to the English capital in the early 90s. “The first was The Eagle in a place called Clerkenwell, north of the city,” he says. “[Up until that point], the generic pub was sticky carpet, warm beer, packets of crisps.”
The Eagle and its imitators would introduce relatively basic meals by 2016 standards, such as bangers and mash, fish and chips and perhaps a Sunday roast. But over the ensuing years the trend escalated to a point where, in 2014, gastropubs such as Devon’s The Treby Arms, Warwickshire’s The Cross at Kenilworth and the Star Inn in north Yorkshire were poaching Michelin stars from more fancied competition. “It’s really come full circle,” Sanceau says. “The English pub had to evolve, and that’s exactly what they’ve done.”
Locally, The Alliance Hotel’s Nick Gregorski also sees London as the home of the gastropub, but says Brisbane operators owe a debt to certain larger venues such as The Story Bridge Hotel, its Deery’s restaurant developing a name over many years for serving quality food in a pub environment. But, he says gastropubs are different. “Food is our major focus,” he says. “Those big pubs have pokies, they’ve got entertainment, they’ve got big bars.”
As Sanceau tells it, perhaps the game changer for Brisbane was the rise of craft beer. As drinkers have become more choosy about what beer they drink, they’ve also become more choosy about what they drink it with.
But is there a delicate balancing act? Neither Sanceau or Gregorski are out to win Michelin stars, and both maintain that a gastropub has to be affordable and accessible. “It’s almost a shame it’s gone that far [in England]. You can get nostalgic for that sticky carpet,” Sanceau laughs.
“But we want to encourage people,” he continues. “It’s all about having that accessibility to a venue that they can go to two or three times a week … That’s the beautiful thing I enjoy about working over here in West End. The locals come in and you have a chat with them. It’s about that sense of community, and that’s how a local should be.”
Both Sanceau and Gregorski reckon there's only a handful of decent gastropubs in Brisbane. We rounded up the best.
Put together by Bonnie Shearston and Tom Sanceau (Red Hook and Coppa Spuntino), and Public co-owner Jason White, London Fields brings the traditional British public house experience to West End, but with a few modern twists.
Here, food shuns predictable pub offerings. Instead, an exciting menu features scallops served with black pudding crumble, and pan roasted trout with confit zebra tomato. Weekend breakfasts may consist of pork chipotle beans with fried egg, or coconut rolled muesli with natural yoghurt and poached fruit.
Local beers from Newstead Brewing and Stone & Wood round out a well-executed list of Australian and imported wines.
23/25 Raven Street, West End
(07) 3846 1593
Nick Gregorski and Meagan Miller’s punt on reviving one of Brisbane’s grandest old drinking holes — sitting high in Spring Hill — has paid off. Redefined as a gastropub, The Alliance takes its food seriously, with a menu tilted towards refined but uncomplicated dishes: roasted Barossa chicken breast, Wagyu beef burgers and veal cutlet, matched to a terrific range of mostly local craft beers, and both Australian and international wines.
The fit-out is hardly half-hearted, either. Re-painted in startling black and white, inside the pub is a retreat from the Spring Hill elements. Immaculate wood and brick work, low ceilings and quirky detailing give everything a cosy, world-away feel.
320 Boundary Street, Spring Hill
(07) 3839 0169
Caxton Street’s maturation into an entertainment hub owes a lot to Jay Lambert and Steve McDermott’s efforts to transform the old Stadium Bar into the charming Statler and Waldorf pub.
The menu changes occasionally — daily specials are scribbled on a ream of butcher’s paper hanging from the ceiling — but there’s always a section devoted to enjoying the atmosphere over olives, duck sausage rolls, cheese boards and the like. Mains might take in eggplant parma, braised lamb shanks or a spiced chickpea burger.
The drinks list is simple, with a focus on draught beer and mature spirits. The range of cocktails usually aligns with whatever is fresh and abundant at the Rocklea Markets.
25 Caxton Street
(07) 3368 1932
Almost a gastropub before Brisbane even knew what the term was, Lock’n’Load Bistro maintains the right measure of eccentricity to appeal to the local crowd.
From outside, the heritage-listed building looks like a small bar modelled after a higgledy-piggledy front room, but this gives way to a restaurant, a balcony with a street view and an outdoor garden.
Choose from mains such as braised beef tacos and housemade gnocchi, or take it easy with tapas-style dishes. On weekends there’s breakfast, too. The flock wallpapered bar boasts an extensive drinks list, with big-name beers such as Tooheys lining up alongside craftier labels, cocktails and jugs of Pimms.
142 Boundary Street, West End
(07) 3844 0142
A cafe, bar and restaurant on a quiet, sun dappled corner of New Farm, Bitter Suite puts equal thought into both food and liquid offerings.
The kitchen serves lunch, dinner and weekend breakfast. Hoisin duck pancakes have become synonymous with Bitter Suite, but they’re hardly indicative of the venue’s full range. The chefs take inspiration from around the world and options range from bar snacks to share plates, generous mains and nightly vegan specials.
As you’d expect from a craft beer joint, the drinks list doesn’t miss a beat. Five of the seven taps are on rotation and the focus is on Australian brews, although exceptions are made for top-notch overseas drops.
75 Welsby Street, New Farm
(07) 3254 4426