Melbourne's best pubs
The newly reopened Esplanade Hotel in St Kilda, one of Melbourne’s most iconic pubs, is far too big and sprawling to simply pop by for a pint. The wide front stairs still lead up into the palatial front bar. Chandeliers and moulded ceilings, a soaring wrought-iron staircase, peeling paint, towering potted palms and walls adorned with black-and-white photos of Aussie rock legends make the space feel like a Miami nightclub in a historic beachfront mansion collided with a classic Aussie pub. It's easy to spend all day at the Espy (we did) and go from front bar to restaurant, band room to basement bar, public bar to courtyard, and cocktail bar to balcony before realising it's going to be quite the stumble home.
It takes a deft touch to update a pub without ruining it, but at the Lincoln, they slipped in the excellent wine list, an exciting collection of craft brews and a bistro menu that wouldn’t look out of place on white linen with candle light with surgically precise service. Nothing that people loved about this historic Carlton pub, which was established in 1854, has been disturbed, and the new features seem like they’ve always been there.
The Palace remains one of the brightest jewels in the crown of Melbourne pubdom. On every scale one could judge a pub, these guys top the list. From beer, to sports, to food, to service, this unassuming little boozer has you covered. First and foremost, the Palace is made for regulars. It has a community atmosphere that’s hard to find these days, as most pubs have become either sad old boozers or too bright and trendy. Not so here, where the crowd is diverse in age and employment, kids are welcome, and the big shady beer garden is proudly pooch positive.
When the Marquis of Lorne Hotel closed, tears were shed for one of the golden girls of Fitzroy. New owners, a group with serious hospitality chops, have struck a perfect balance between modernising the Marquis and retaining her classic charms. The timbers of this backstreets pub are worn smooth by the devoted throngs who head here after dark for a pub dinner that’s a cut above. Let a creamy, salty plate of taramasalata skewered with crisp shards of pita bread tide you over until your pillowy gnocchi with garlic and greens arrive at your rooftop perch.
It might look like a tiny German castle, or maybe an elaborate British firehouse, but inside the Woodlands Hotel it’s an all Victorian party, all the time. Seriously, these guys are walking the walk when it comes to local produce. On our visit the tap list is primed with a house lager, a pale from Cavalier in Derrimut and a raspberry wheat beer from Bareside’s Boatrocker. The bottled beer list widens their territory – it’s more Victorian than a VFL premiership in here. And you can bet your bootstraps that their local focus extends to the kitchen.
On any given night at this Collingwood bluestone stalwart, punters of all ages, genders and sexualities are sinking $6 pints of Vale Lager at happy hour by the roaring fireplace, smashing beer burgers and parmas or veg, vegan or gluten-free meals, and standing shoulder-to-shoulder watching gigs on the mezzanine level of the 350-person bandroom. All of this is thanks to a new direction that the Gaso took several years ago, to create a warm, welcoming environment that would reflect Melbourne’s incredibly diverse music scene, and the people who make up that ecosystem.
In an age where revivals, renovations and glossy makeovers are making social climbers out of our bars and pubs, our love for the resistance grows, and nowhere do we love better for their rough edges than the Catfish in Fitzroy. It’s a rambling, weathered boozer that knows you care much more about what’s in your glass and what’s on the stage than whether or not the walls are millennial pink and if there’s a Montauk theme to the furnishings (there’s not, obviously).
To call the Tote a legend is like calling the sky blue; it doesn't care what you think and everyone knows it anyway. That being said, it's important to take a step back and recognise the venues that have built this city and kept its rock heart pumping for a generation. This is the only pub in Melbourne to ever spark a full-scale protest, lead by Australia’s royalty of rock, when draconian licensing laws threatened to shut the place down back in 2010. The rockers, and the pub, prevailed.
Tucked just off the unlikely corner of Carlisle and Balaclava, the Taphouse greets you with the comforting smell of heritage wood paneling. Warmly lit by tiny lamps ensconced in the walls, it feels like an old fashioned gentlemen's club that just happens to have one of the best craft beer lists in the city. As you head upstairs, the aroma of the wood fire on the rooftop terrace beckons, warming the space, which is packed even on one of the first truly cold nights of the year.
Opposite the Queen Victoria markets on Peel Street, the Drunken Poet is Melbourne’s cosiest little shebeen. These guys pour the freshest pint of Guinness in the land, Vegemite-rich with living yeast, and a cracker Kilkenny to boot. Behind the bar you’ll usually find one of our favourite publicans, Siobhan Dooley, who’ll remember your name a year later and always has a smile on. There’s no kitchen, but you can get a toastie or a pickled egg if Guinness isn’t enough to live on (as if).
If you get bored easily, the Alehouse Project should be your pub of choice. Ask them what's good on tap, and you'll often hear something you (or anyone else in Australia) have never heard of. Publican Alex Summers is one of the most knowledgeable and passionate folks in the game, easily explaining every weird and wonderful drop that pours forth from his 12 constantly changing taps.
Ah the Fox. This happy little pub is our pick for the best family-friendly joint in town, because even if your family is two mums and a dog you’ll be welcomed with open arms. Hang out at the cosy front bar to enjoy great banter across the counter, a live blues, jazz, country or soul performance and a pint of their constantly changing craft taps pouring local craft heroes like Killer Sprocket, Cavalier and Three Ravens, with many more in the bottle. If the weather’s good, pop out the back with your pooch for a session in the sunny little courtyard.
The Royston was the first pub in Melbourne to put craft beer on all taps. Like, before it was even cool. It still has the air of a smooth older sibling that was mates with that band way before they were famous, and doesn’t even try to rub it in. Beers include neighbours Mountain Goat alongside weird and wonderful stuff like To Øl Passion of the Weisst from Denmark, which wins the award for beer name of the year and tastes like sour passionfruit on toast. The hand pump usually pours 3 Ravens Black Stout, because who wants fridge-cold carbonated beer in the Melbourne winter?
Situated plum on the Bridge Road thoroughfare, the Mt View Hotel is Melbourne’s perfect sports hub. There’s a large ground-level bar featuring a sea of big screens. The only risk while dropping in before a game is getting too comfortable – the atmosphere of the nearby stadiums is palpable here and it’s easy to feel as if you’re already under the MCG stands. Just above the bustle of the street below, the two middle floors have a laidback offering of pool tables and more TVs primed for a decidedly more relaxed viewing, but the jewel in the Mt View crown is its stunning rooftop beer garden.
The cavernous space has been split down the middle with low shelving draped in vines. High bar tables run the length of the bar side, while the main part of the room is now a dining area, filled with comfy booth seating. It's a small change that does a lot to break up the space, making it much more cosy and helping it to feel full with fewer people. Thirty-two taps offer everyone an inroad to the craft beer universe with a list divided by style to help you navigate, and a staff only happy to give you a taste of anything before you commit.
The CBD’s new Garden State Hotel is huge. Four levels surround a central atrium that lets natural light permeate from above, and also leads down to the basement cocktail bar. Black steel, greenery and an aquarium’s worth of glass give the whole place a greenhouse atmosphere. At any of three bars, chipper and quick-witted staff pour ultra-safe beers like Fat Yak and Peroni, with an excellent amber from McCracken’s.
There’s a type of guy we all know in Melbourne who’s about 30, spends all his free time going to gigs, and used to be in a band. Mention the Reverence Hotel to him and he’ll smile as he remembers his band’s first gig when he was 18, the ringing of his ears as he stepped out into the cold Footscray night, too high on rock to feel the chill of winter on his sweat-soaked band T-shirt. The Reverence is a church where live music is the religion and the doors are open to any and all who seek its comfort.
Set against the hustle of an ever-gentrifying Brunswick Street, this corner pub has clearly seen its fair share of loud music and good times. Built in 1853 and ordained as a pub in 1998, the name is spelled Labour or Labor, depending on which door you look at, a written nod to that brief period in Australia’s history around 1900 when officials toyed with dropping the U in “labour”. It’s furnished with hard wooden benches and squeaky bar stools, the floors are sticky, and the solo drinkers all look like they were members of punk bands in the ’80s.
It’s hard not be impressed with the warehouse conversion in Collingwood that houses the Stomping Ground brewery and beer hall. ‘Hall’ really is the only appropriate word for the vast space that has been transformed into a welcoming and thoughtfully constructed craft beer destination by Steve Jeffares, Guy Greenstone and Justin Joiner. These guys started off serving beer at the Local Taphouse and then celebrating it at their annual festival, GABS. Now they’re making it too.
Walking into Leonard’s is like finding the coolest house party at the ski resort, circa 1983: a place where staff kick back to rock’n’roll, drink whisky and make fun of the bleach-blonde varsity ski team crowd. Just like a ski lodge should, Leonard’s has an air of instant comfort. The room is entirely surfaced in untreated pine, with warm lighting, plenty of open space and a roaring fire. The stained glass back bar is flanked by mounted longhorns and a mongoose valiantly fighting a cobra.
Andrew McConnell and partner-in-crime Anthony Hammond have dragged the pub to the present with a whip-smart whitewash paint job, which will either thrill or dismay you – depending on how you felt about the place when it was fuchsia. Save for a weathervane-style light sculpture, there’s naught but a few charcoal chairs and tables to prevent photokeratitis (Google it). The front bar is casual, but in a Cumulus way rather than a pub way (read: you’ll still need to wear pants), and the counter meal game is a serious cut above.
Urban Alley has the potential to finally give Docklands residents the local they’ve sorely lacked. Located underneath the Melbourne Star, the venue is part craft brewery and part pub, with a line-up of four core beers (the signature pale plus a lager, IPA and American pale ale) brewed on site – you can even watch the team hard at work through the massive glass windows.
For years, the Retreat has been a champion of live music in Brunswick. This is not just a good pub with a band room attached; here the music is front and centre, spilling out onto the street from the inviting front bar. Later on in the evenings, this will turn into one of the better dance floors in the ’hood as the bands leave and the younger folk take over to throw some shapes. And even though it’s pumping till 3am on the weekend, you won’t get hassled on this floor:
The Curtin’s band room has a full schedule of local, national and international acts and there are free live gigs in the front bar every Saturday arvo. Gig posters cover the walls and band stickers plaster the bar fridges, which chill glasses for craft beer on tap like Brooklyn, Barrow Boys and Two Brothers. After takeovers at Huxtaburger and Bluebonnet BBQ, Sonny's have now set up a permanent fried chicken kitchen inside the Curtin. They brine the chicken here for 24 hours and you can order it by dark or white meat, drum'n'thigh, a half or whole bird.
Lamaro’s, the grand old pub on a ritzy South Melbourne street, is famous for their upmarket dining room and surprisingly decent wine list. In its latest iteration, Geoff Lindsay (formerly Pearl and Dandelion) has taken command of the kitchen and is serving his famous red duck curry alongside pub favourites such as veal schnitzels and aged steaks.
Away from the madness of Chapel Street, the narrow backstreets of Prahran are home to single-storey Victorian terrace houses fronted by picket fences and colourful, well-kept gardens. Here in this quiet neighbourhood, you’ll find the Flying Duck Hotel, loved by locals for its old-school pub atmosphere and massive beer garden. After changing hands and undergoing renovations, the Duck is back – and it’s still the perfect place for an easygoing Sunday session.
Located in South Melbourne, the Montague Hotel is a popular backstreet destination for wine, craft beer and top pub grub. Its corner aspect means they can fling open the doors on a sunny day and inside, a refresh has given the place serious French Bistro vibes. If you're hankering for a quality counter meal, the bangers and mash here are rich, savoury and juicy with a heart-stopping amount of butter in the mash.
You can tell a lot about a pub from its taps. At the Terminus, they stock such a stellar line up of craft beers and punch those kegs so quickly, it’s printed-and-laminated labels instead of badges fronting half the line. As far as brew havens go, this Clifton Hill hero is one of our best. A renovation two years ago saw the old pub split in two. The south side is now a lean, clean beer bar full of shiny fixtures, blonde wood and a beer-friendly menu. The pub’s north end remains a stronghold for fans of the classic local.
It’s the quintessential live music venue to all Gen Y kids, but it’s much more than that. The Corner Hotel is an iconic pub. Sometimes it smells funny and the carpets will always be sticky. It also doesn’t hurt that you might see your favourite band drinking in the front bar because the green room is a little crappy. You’ll see everyone from your dirty rocker types, bikers, hip-hoppers, groupies, uni students and young families with kids at the Corner, plus now they've added their fancy new rooftop it's party time in the open air.
Everyone is welcome at the Edinburgh Castle Hotel. Beneath the alpine mural in the sprawling front bar, you might find chunky, tatted rockers pushing wagyu beef burgers past their whiskers, while three year olds cruise past them on the complimentary trikes. This is a true community pub, where families feel welcomed rather than just equipped. There are kids' meals, including a daily pie, schnitzel and a cheese pizza, plus crayons, colouring books, and high chairs.
This chilled-out pub pours a top-notch range of craft beers with sours, IPAs, stouts and easy drinking Two Birds ales fresh from the nearby brewery. A sign proclaiming love of Aussie beer offers suggestions from every state of our great, beer-soaked nation, and the immaculate chalkboard speaks to heavy tap rotation. A leather-bound beer bible has bottles listed by style with full descriptions.
While you'd be much more likely to see the crowd that frequents the Rochester at Meredith than at a metal gig, the attitude here is still far more Jack White than Jack Johnson. The Rochester is a pub that’s matured with the neighborhood, as we all get a bit older and prefer a good chat, a craft beer and a smart, Keralan meal to cheap pots, frozen parmas and a night of blurred memories. But we still know how to party, and until we all move to Preston to breed, the Rochester’s where it’s at.
The Town Hall Hotel in North Melbourne is one of those brilliant little pubs that time has forgotten, left to marinate in nostalgia like a rockabilly grandparent. A touch on the shabby side, this is not the place for you if you like your pubs slick and shiny. But if you like a joint that's a bit rough around the edges and honest as the day is long, this little pub should be right up your alley. The front bar is decorated entirely in old rock'n'roll memorabilia.
There are too few good old-fashioned boozers these days. The new team behind the refurbished Yarra Hotel would agree with that, as they’ve transformed the neglected local pub into a welcoming den of golden beeriness and decorative warmth. Excuse us getting misty-eyed, but sometimes that’s all you really want from a pub, isn’t it? A boozer with a hearty menu and good people, free from bells and whistles.
This pub’s interior is exactly what you were expecting - dark brickwork, dated sports memorabilia, a chalkboard with the day’s specials, and smiley bar staff having a chat to some locals. It’s practised at being cosy and comfortable and here’s why: this Melbourne gem has graced the corner of Napier Street, Fitzroy for over 130 years.
Brunswick Street may be ground zero for cocktails in Fitzroy, but lurking in the back streets is one of Melbourne’s finest establishments for getting in your cups on sunny days, freezing nights and boring Mondays. Head here early in the week for a counter meal, a pint or two, a cosy seat by the wood stove and trivia on Tuesday nights. Pretension is an anathema to the Standard, so much so that they even went through a period in the early ’90s when they refused to serve anyone in a suit – score one for the underdogs!
Despite the slasher-flick name, the Hack in Port Melbourne is a bright and airy venue for G-rated drinking and dining. This huge old pub, built in 1860, is the perfect setting for a neighbourhood bar and eatery, with huge arched windows flooding the front bar with natural light on three sides. The food is less parma and steak, and more American-style smoked meats like brisket, ribs and mac and cheese croquettes, matched to summery cocktails and easy-drinking craft beers.
The exterior of this Hawthorn East mainstay has a commanding, fortress-like presence along the skyline as you approach via its namesake road. Inside the Auburn, however, you’re greeted with a pristine warmth akin to an upmarket country pub. Big screens populate most walls, with bar staff more than happy to accommodate requests for background music to be subdued in favour of blaring commentary. The elegance of the connecting wine room permeates a touch of class into the front bar, carried over into the immaculately presented, astro-turf-lined beer garden.
When it comes to sports-watching culinary fare, baked camembert with sourdough isn’t exactly up there with chips and pies in terms of classic footy tucker. It does, however, provide a pleasing break with tradition to delicately apply cheese and quince paste to bread in between bouts of intense game viewing. With a full selection on tap from the on–premise James Squire Brewhouse, the share-plate menu also features local, yet distinctive, choices of crocodile sausage rolls and emu meatballs.
Under new owners since October 2014, Station Hotel has stayed true its mission of providing quality food in a casual pub environment. The kegs piled near the door and the brisk trade at the bar are sure signs that this is as much local watering hole as upscale eatery. Dining in the public bar is a casual affair that belies the full, and excellent, menu available no matter where you’re perched. Mains are sized for pub appetites, with thick slabs of charred and tender steak their major drawcard.
If you can remember what “fancy” pub steakhouses were like in the 1980s, you know all about the Railway. The dining room sports maroon carpets, white paper-on-cloth covered tables, and ’70s housebrick walls crowded with framed netball heroes, jockey colours and Don Bradman driving for the boundary. It’s packed even on a Tuesday, families next to groups of businessmen in shirtsleeves next to tradies in hi-vis.
In the annals of excellent pub dinners, Harry Lilai selling the Town Hall Hotel to Sean Donovan was a bit like the passing of the Olympic torch from one champ to another. Lilai sails off into the sunset with the neighbourhood goodwill borne of five years of Italian excellence, while Donovan – the chef who turned around Footscray’s Station Hotel and South Melbourne’s Wayside Inn and has proven he knows his way around a pub – has arrived in Fitzroy packing meat.
The venerable Wesley Anne is one of Melbourne’s oldest and prettiest pubs. Housed in a former church, its rough stone walls have seen generations of drinkers, musicians and sinners in general come and go. It’s divided into three parts with three very distinct characters: there’s the slightly Gothic main barroom, a warm and comfortable band room and the large, leafy beer garden.
Abbotsford’s formerly scuzzy Terminus Hotel – spot the former patrons from the thousand-yard stares and aversion to touching the walls – is now boasting a brightly tiled bar areas, spread around a jungle-y rope-festooned courtyard complete with perving balcony. The SHR crew are always keen to impress that despite the fancy renos, their venues remain local boozers at heart. On a weeknight that’s true. But on weekends it gets very close to club territory.
If footy is a religion, The Great Northern Hotel is its mega-church. Nestled away in the Inner North, this sprawling sports pub has a well-earned reputation as the premier destination for locals and visitors alike to watch the game. The main dining area can feel like mission control during the crossover between dinnertime and the match, thanks to a massive, wall-spanning screen. Bodies spring up to roar success, while groans of despair rumble under the celebrations. If the main event isn’t to your liking, a bit of table real estate can be claimed in the pup-friendly beer garden.
You might not expect to find a place like the Grosvenor here on Brighton Road in St Kilda East. From a distance, it looks like any other massive suburban pub. But walk in and you’ll know you’re someplace different. The Grosvenor’s interior design hits all the trends of the last few years. But despite the no-risks-taken atmosphere, there’s a real attention to quality and variety here if you’re willing to go beyond a Carlton and a parma.
Decorated with skulls, red-tinted stage lights and skateboard decks, the Bendigo is presided over closely by the gods of hard rock. These are not the kind and generous gods of your Meredith Festival, nor the flower-clad and saffron-robed ones your parents remember fondly from the days of your conception, before they cut their hair and put on a suit. No, these are the vengeful Viking gods of old who demand sacrifice in blood from tatts and piercings, who drink Jack Daniels, who lost their hearing years ago from exposure to constant distortion.
Beer DeLuxe in Hawthorn occupies a Victorian undertaker's building complete with wrought-iron awnings, and offers a traditional pub experience as well as being a craft beer bar. It’s nice to see a younger demographic holding up the bar and exploring the huge tap beer list – hailing from all over the world, with tasting paddles and a focus on local craft and Euro brews. With staff, the common denominator here is impressive knowledge of beer and an obvious passion for what they do.
On a drizzly, cold night in the quiet back streets of South Melbourne, the Railway doesn’t look like much from the outside. Stepping inside, however, transports you to 1968 and the Pub that Time Forgot. An open fire dispatches the chill like a cup of your Nana’s tea, and the chef smiles broadly as he walks through the room, commenting on the cosy scene. One elderly chap sits at the counter, pot in hand, watching the sports update on the telly. The big central bar’s hardwood surface is polished with time and a suspended, ribbed glass cabinet runs its length at head height.
People dress up to come to the Gem. It may look like Just Another Corner Pub (and once sported the unglamorous title of Curry’s Family Hotel), but you’re entering a church of rock’n’roll and most punters respectfully wear their rockabilly best. You don’t have to be rocking a mad quaff or ‘50s frock to drink here though. It’s a place for anyone who likes Coopers, Texas barbecue and a toe-tapping good time. The snug, wood-panelled interior is decorated in a style that might be described as ‘Texas meets Mexico and challenges it to a switchblade fight’.