Retreat Hotel, Abbotsford
Time Out says
And old-school pub with new-school sensibilities
Tucked away in the neighbourhood streets of Abbotsford just off of Johnston Street, the Retreat is a marvel of Victorian pub design. The original chandeliers and dark turned wood survive, and stained glass decorates the windows, doors and the cabinet above the bar that follows its S-curve through the cosy front room. Black-and-white photos of old colonial pubs and mid-century publicans line the walls, and brass elephant heads hold the railing along the bar in place with their shiny little trunks.
The old girl’s had her ups and downs recently. With the longstanding owners not able to make a go of it and selling a couple of years ago, there was a valiant but short-lived attempt to turn the Retreat into an upscale bistro. Despite the steady gentrification of the inner north, it was just too soon for this neighbourhood. Enter the crew from the Palace Hotel in South Melbourne (Time Out Melbourne’s Pub of the Year 2016), who took over in 2018, bringing with them their quality-without-pretence brand of kick-ass pubdom.
Rather than trying to freeze this place in historical time, publicans Jess McGrath and Mark Pratt have brought their silly sensibilities with them. There’s now a pool table and a pinball machine, and behind the bar an MF Doom poster is stuck alongside random band logos and newspaper cut-outs of Essendon wins, while toys from the ‘80s and ‘90s clutter the shelves.
The front bar is packed on a Saturday night in the thick of footy season, the room erupting at a last-minute Essendon goal to clinch the match. Like the Palace, this pub loves footy with all its heart, and no one here will look askew at enthusiastic spectatorship. The old punters who left during the Retreat’s last incarnation are back, sipping their pots of Carton at the bar. As if this was their own living room, they warmly welcome the hipster clientele heading back to the tiny courtyard to smoke rollies and hang out with their doggos. This is a pub that thrives on regulars, and it lends a feeling of genuine warmth that’s all too hard to find.
These guys love craft beer, too. There’s a malty and very drinkable Wolf of the Willows amber or the floral-but-not-perfume-y hops of a Balter XPA alongside berlinnerweisse, IPA, and pale ale – all great local examples of their styles. It’s just enough to show they know what’s good and to keep everyone happy without flexing.
The food menu is all pub classics, all done exceptionally well. Nothing is missing, from burgers to pizza to salads to steaks, with a list of daily specials that includes a pie, soup, curry, main, sandwich and dessert. We tried the beef and stout pie, its buttery pastry filled so full of saucy meat that it really doesn’t need the entire boat of gravy that comes on the side. That didn’t stop us from applying it liberally, and nor should it you. Pair it with a bittersweet Bodriggy stout and you’re in winter pub heaven. These guys also do what could be the best Buffalo wings in Melbourne: ultra crispy, falling off the bone and slathered in Frank’s hot sauce the way God intended, its vinegary vapour making mouths water every time an order leaves the kitchen. They are accompanied with the requisite celery, blue cheese and ranch dipping sauces.
It’s rare to find a pub these days that ticks every box, from service to sports to food to beer to cosy atmosphere, but this place does. So when Melbourne winter gets you down, fall back to the Retreat, and everything will be OK.
226 Nicholson Street
|Opening hours:||Sun-Wed noon-11pm; Thur-Sat noon-1am|