Part of Andrew McConnell’s Trader House group, the Builders Arms is one of the more low-key venues in the Melbourne-only collection. You might head further up Gertrude Street to Cutler and Co for a finer-dine date night, or to Marion for a wine-focused long lunch; the Cumulus twins in the CBD are otherwise perfect for a business bite.
But the front bar of the Builders Arms still feels like the neighbourhood boozer it has been since 1853. It retains the historic shoulder-height yellow tiles now teamed with a simple dark wood floor and Art Deco-inspired hanging globes. There may be less of the titular tradies propping up the bar these days but it’s a mixed crowd and the welcoming bar staff continue to pump out pots and schooners faster than a six o’clock swill. There is a strong craft beer bent now, so expect Sydney’s Young Henrys, local brew Hawkers and Pirate Life on the ample taps.
You can order counter meals to eat at the high bar tables, but the real action is in the attached bistro that has been through a few changes of its own over the years. Under McConnell it began as Moon Under Water, then came Ricky & Pinky’s modern Chinese. Now, its European-leaning menu exists in a simply dressed room with banquettes along one wall and minimalist old pub touches like mounted stag antlers on cream-coloured walls.
The bistro menu is ‘just’ pub food in the same way that truffles are ‘just’ fungus. These are pub classics by name but delivered with balance and finesse by McConnell’s team. Start with some snacks that will ruin you for any future bar munchies. Whipped cod roe is silky smooth, scooped with toasty flatbread soldiers, while Ortiz anchovy and stracciatella on toast provides a perfect creamy-salty bite. The starter of Spencer Gulf king prawns come butterflied and served with curry butter, topped with fried curry leaves for some added bite, and the rabbit terrine is studded with pistachios and accompanied by a pile of tart cornichons and mustard.
The fish pie was taken off the menu once and it almost caused a Fitzroy riot. It saved a few people in lockdown too, but there is nothing like ordering it in situ. The filling packs a trawler-load of seafood flavour with flaky snapper, smoky ocean trout and plump prawns in a light, zesty sorrel-packed broth; the puffy crust on top soaks up the sauce, making the moment anyone’s pub happy place. Sadly, not even the McConnell magic can lift a vegan cheeseburger above being a solid, but not too exciting, meat alternative. If you’re after something to sip, helpful, knowledgeable staff will assist with the off-beat wine list that celebrates the underdogs of some of Victoria’s well-known wine regions.
Desserts continue the retro vibe with rhubarb and mascarpone and chocolate pudding – or you could just slip back into the front bar for a nightcap.