At Priscillas, vegetables are the “best garnishes a meat dish ever had”, says David Clarke, group executive chef of Sydney Collective’s (Watson’s Bay Boutique Hotel, Park House) newest restaurant.

The vegetable-driven menu is not the only thing that has spiked our interest with this new opening – so is the fact the restaurant is housed in Erskineville’s recently reopened Imperial Hotel.

The “grand old dame”, as it was affectionately called, has had a colourful past. Under its previous owners, drug busts, drunken misdemeanours, licence breaches and even reports of patrons licking alcohol off the floor forced its closure in 2015, leaving behind a social void.

But most remember it for being synonymous with drag and cabaret performances, and for playing an important role for Sydney’s LGBTQI community. In fact, its appearance in the iconic Aussie film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is the reason why the restaurant is named Priscillas.

Film references can be found on the cocktail list, too. Each drink is named in honour of famous drags, including Felicia Jollygoodfellow (Guy Pearce’s drag character in Priscilla) and Sexy Galexy, one of the industry’s most prominent drag kings.

But unlike the meals that would have been served at the pubs in Priscilla, the menu here is three quarters vegetarian and the kitchen uses wood and coal to cook produce sourced from boutique farms in Kempsey and Windsor.

In its previous life, the Imperial had a front bar and a back room with a stage and performance space. Now it’s just one large room, with the restaurant and the open kitchen at the rear of the space, the main bar at the front and a stage between the two – a handy location for “drag and dine” performances.

Look up to see the pub’s fresco ceiling. Inspired by the Sistine Chapel, the gay landmark print pays respect to Sydney’s queer culture. There are naked angles; one is carrying a rainbow cloud, another a drink, of course.

The dishes are equally as colourful as the art. Vibrant wood-roasted beets are served with smoked labne, lime caramel, spiced pistachios and endives; and greens are roasted over coal and served with Caesar cream, seeds, nuts and currants.

“Long gone are the days where you serve a steak and a few garnishes. For us, it’s about how can we use veggies to give it a dish that same texture and flavour without people realising they’re not eating meat,” says Clarke.

But meat isn’t completely MIA. There’s a hearty wood-grilled achiote (a spice mix used in Mexican and Caribbean dishes) chicken with tomatillo salsa, herbs and pickles; and a Wagyu minute steak served with fries, roasted garlic, chipotle butter and reduced bone broth.

The kitchen is accompanied by a dedicated ceviche bar made from solid marble. Clarke’s pick is the coconut ceviche dressed with jalapeno aguachile, coconut curry, radish, cabbage, and pickles.

Clarke says his recent trip with owner Fraser Short and food consultant Eric Tan to California – home of the plant-based food movement – was the inspiration for the menu. In 10 days they ate in 45 restaurants.

“With Cali being so heavily Mexican influenced, we came across a lot of different ways to [flavour] vegetarian dishes. It wasn’t just beans and onions; it was using exciting spices and forgotten produces. Once you tasted it you’d say, ‘Damn, that woke me up.’”

35 Erskineville Road, Erskineville
(02) 8960 6613

Sun to Thurs 11am–10pm
Fri to Sat 11am–11pm

This article was updated on March 15, 2018.