There was no bar on campus when I was an undergrad at Monash, which was probably a good thing, on sober reflection. Aside from not having the disposable income or the ability to hold copious quantities of beer or wine that I do now, I would occasionally wander north to the Nottinghill Hotel, affectionately known as The Nott to generations of Monash students.
Yesterday, visiting old haunts in a masochistic fit of nostalgia, I felt a bit the way F. Scott Fitzgerald did, when he wrote (perhaps with an ironic wink at his reader): ‘Once more the belt is tight and we summon up the proper expression of horror as we look back at our wasted youth.’
When, in my late teens and early twenties, I would visit the beer garden at the Nott, there used to be chickens roaming free range around the tables. I mentioned this to the barmaid as she poured me a pint of Little Creatures, but she had already heard this.
It was a very different time, almost worlds away really. 1987 is as far away in time from 2021 as 1953 is from 1987. Chickens in the beer garden was a charming quirk about the Nott, as was the publican, Kath, who had been there since the late 1930s as a newly wed not quite 20, and who remained the publican for about 70 years. [I did not know that then, as my visits to the Nott were an end of term thing, rather than an end of week thing, as they more than likely would be if I was to be transported back to that time now.]
Aside from the chickens and the record breaking publican being gone, the Nott is probably much the same as it was then, even if Nottinghill has changed much since the market gardens surrounding the pub when Kath first took up the license. The University Bar is currently referred to as the Steakhouse, and the food is probably better than when I did lunch there one rainy day in 1993. And the beer garden is still one of the best in Melbourne.
Which got me thinking, as I sometimes do, particularly as summer approaches, as to what are the best beer gardens in Melbourne.
Let me start by saying that I will disqualify those beer gardens which relate to bars which are not traditional pubs. I am a traditionalist, and I cannot keep up with all the inner city bars which sprout up and then just as quickly disappear. Nor am I going to include rooftop bars, like what Young & Jacksons and The Imperial now have.
So, here is my list:
- The Nottinghill Hotel
How can I not rank the Nott at the top of the list, given all I have already written about it above? Aside from the character and history of the place, it has a beer garden which, even sans chooks, is spacious and shady and comfortable, running in a long oblong from the buildings of the pub down to the bottleshop out back.
2. The Standard Hotel
The Standard is located in a side street parallel to and immediately west of Brunswick Street Fitzroy. Surrounded by workers’ cottages, it occupies a spacious block immediately behind the pub, with many trees providing space. I have spent many happy afternoons there, mostly at work related Christmas lunches.
3. The Retreat
There are two pubs with the name The Retreat in Melbourne. One is in Abbotsford just south of Johnson Street and is famous for where the pub scenes in The Sullivans were filmed. But it has no beer garden. There is another Retreat in Sydney Road Brunswick, and this is the one with the beer garden, which is well worth visiting.
I had a very fun afternoon there last December with some colleagues, and the December before that with some other friends. What makes the Retreat particularly special in my mind is that its beer garden is dominated by an ancient (but still marginally alive) almond tree which would have to be the largest specimen of the genus prunus I have ever seen.
4. The Anglers Tavern
The Anglers Tavern is located on the banks of the Maribyrnong River, just opposite where a sign in the 1990s used to welcome motorists to the City of Sunshine, with ‘Maribyrnong Township’ in slightly smaller lettering.
I used to live on the other side of the ‘township’ (I much prefer that to suburb), about 10 minutes’ walk through the side streets from my flat. As a result, I have visited the Anglers many times over the past 30 years and it has many fond memories.
For example, Sunday afternoons in the mid 1990s when Wendy Stapleton would sing covers of various other peoples’ songs with the aid of a backing tape and one guitarist (sadly, she never would play Reputation or any of the other songs from when she headed The Rockets in the early 80s).
As the beer garden is located on the banks of the river, it has a lot going for it. However, I think that putting up semi-permanent roofing over most of the beer garden has diminished it. I much prefer a beer garden which is mostly open to nature, with more trees, as it used to be.
5. The Great Northern
The Great Northern is in Rathdowne Street in Carlton North, just before the street ends at the abandoned railway line. The pub itself seems to be a time capsule of early 1980s decor, and I find that charming. I have been there quite a number of times, most notably at an old friend’s 40th birthday drinks there, over a decade ago.
6. The Keilor Hotel
I really am not sure about including the Keilor Hotel on a list of Melbourne pubs. Technically, Keilor village is a part of Melbourne, and suburbia these days extends well past it to the north and west, but Keilor has always felt to me like a small country town tucked away around a few bends in the river, with only the hum of the freeway and the roar of planes approaching or departing from the airport nearby to remind us of Greater Melbourne.
The pub itself has the charm of a giant old country pub. I think it dates to about 1850, and was a stop over during the gold rush for chancers heading out to Bendigo to try their luck. The current publican has been there since 1974, and is related to a local family which owned it since the 1860s.
The beer garden area is out the back of the pub, surrounded by ancient gum trees, and offers a very comfortable afternoon of beer drinking. I was there on Cup Day, and it was strangely deserted.
The Keilor Hotel is one of those hidden gems of Melbourne, and well worth a visit, if you can spare the time for such a remote trek.
Given that I am on a staycation of 13 weeks duration, I will have sufficient time to visit more than a few pubs in coming weeks. From memory, there are a few which I do need to reevaluate.
The Kingston Hotel – Richmond. If I remember correctly ( and I have only been there twice), this has an awesome beer garden. I will have to investigate.
St Andrews’ Hotel (aka The Pumphouse). Does an atrium area out the back count as a beer garden? Not sure. As an aside, a former owner of this pub some decades ago was rumoured to harbour a pet monkey upstairs.
Bells Hotel. I have not been here in a very long time, so I am not sure that this pub, somewhere just off Clarendon Street in South Melbourne still exists, but I am pretty sure that it had a great beer garden. Maybe I need to try and find out again.
The Clyde. This place has been a haunt of Melbourne Uni students for a very long time, and is probably the only pub left in the area that still welcomes them (I think that Naughtons is not called that anymore, assuming that it is open at the moment). It has a beer garden, but not in the same league as the ones listed above. But any beer garden which is not just the concrete space with a plastic table and an ashtray en route to the toilet (eg the Courthouse Hotel in Footscray) deserves some commendation.
If anyone reads this post, please suggest some more beer gardens in the comments.