Hospitality heavyweight James Ingram has spent decades working in, managing and owning excellent restaurants. He started under chef Gay Bilson at Berowra Waters Inn, helped open Rockpool and has worked with mammoth hospo groups Merivale, Solotel and Etymon. But now he’s turned his hand to one of his first loves: a great pub. Together with local Mike Everett, he’s reopened The Dry Dock, Balmain’s oldest continuously trading watering hole. The venue received a mega refurbishment, which includes a cracking restaurant captained by executive chef Ben Sitton (ex-Uccello, Felix, Rockpool).
“The pub that I grew up with in the ‘80s was about live music, fun, socialising, good food and great drinks,” Ingram tells Broadsheet. “We’ve lost the art of that a bit in Sydney. I wanted to create a pub that was like a British one, in that it’s part of the social fabric of the community but also a bit international – when you’re sitting there, you could feel like you’re in a great little bar in Williamsburg, New York, or a beautiful old bar in Europe.”
Like many British pubs, The Dry Dock is away from the main drag, on a quiet corner among residential streets. The nicest way to get there, arguably, is by ferry – it’s a five-minute stroll from Balmain Wharf. (In the late 19th century, The Dry Dock was the go-to for Balmain’s dock workers.)
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Once inside, drinkers (and dogs) gather around wooden stools in the bustling front bar, ensconced by 19th century sandstone walls and, in winter, an open fireplace. The bar leads into a lounge where booths, Chesterfields and warm lamps create a more relaxed, cosy feel. Around a corner lies the dining room, a magnificent, high-ceilinged space kept bright with skylights. If you can, get a seat along the glass wall, overlooking a Parisian-inspired internal garden, dotted with white flowers and designed by landscaper Selena Hannan.
An expansive open kitchen gets you in on the action. Sitton oversees a menu divided into share plates, pastas, salads, and charcoal-grilled meats and veggies. All of it is inspired by classic European bistros, but slightly lighter. Take the bowl of orecchiette with duck ragu, made aromatic with orange and parsley. “I wanted to take the duck l’orange, but make it less heavy,” says Sitton. “You can eat it in summer and you won’t walk away with a rock in your tummy.”
Another plate that benefits from Sitton’s eye is the steak tartare. A super-fresh ball of beef and egg yolk zinging with capers, cornichons (pickled cucumbers) and Dijon is served alongside snappy game crisps. From there the market fish is a good place to go, and it’s also one of the chef’s favourites. “We serve it in a beurre blanc. You take lemon juice and white wine, and make a reduction, then add some cream and a whole lot of butter.” Spinach swims in the sauce while a crispy, charcoal-grilled fillet-of-the-day floats on top. Come dessert, a whiff of raspberry souffle with house-made pistachio ice-cream is a sweet finish.
Those who don’t want to stay for long are served by a varied, venue-spanning bar menu. Think duck liver parfait with burnt grapes and potato bread, and cheeseburgers with sour pickles and fries.
The cocktail menu does classics well, and the wine list is the creation of in-house somm Christiane Poulous (ex-Rockpool, Bennelong) and consultant John Clancy.
“We wanted to create a pub that locals who’ve been connected to the area for more than 100 years feel proud of, but also for a new generation of Balmain-ians,” Ingram says. “It’s first and foremost for locals. Even after 30 odd years of doing this, you still don’t know how the customer is going to receive a venue until you open it, so it’s been a huge relief to see the community coming in and enjoying it so much.”
The Dry Dock
22 Cameron St, Balmain
(02) 9555 1306
Mon to Sat 11am–midnight
Mon to Fri midday–late
Sat & Sun 11am–late