There’s no need to look at the Old Fitz all that closely to notice there have been some changes. Nothing major from the outside – fresh signage, more outdoor seating and some striped umbrellas better suited, perhaps, to a St Tropez beach club than a 160-year-old pub. Inside, the state of affairs is much the same, from the crimson carpet and pressed tin ceilings to the cranking fireplace. The theatre remains, too, out the back and down the stairs. And that’s a good thing, because the diehard local regulars and their dogs would likely stage a riot otherwise.
Peer into the kitchen, though, and you’ll find somebody new in charge. Her name is Anna Ugarte-Carral, and with her comes a wealth of experience in some of Sydney’s most demanding kitchens, including Hubert, Firedoor and, most recently, Momofuku Seiobo. At just 27 years of age, she took out the 2020 Josephine Pignolet Young Chef of the Year award, an accolade that has catapulted the careers of big names like Mark Best, Dan Hong and Sixpenny’s Dan Puskas. And while some chefs with similar credentials might aim to pull no punches, she’s taking a refreshingly, decidedly unshowy approach to her first head chef role.
Her compact menu owes as much to the classic French bistro as it does a modest Tuscan osteria. Steak frites (sliced bavette with sturdy, skin-on chips and a splotch of herb butter) and pan-fried market fish (maybe Spanish mackerel, a nod to Ugarte-Carral’s Spanish background) jostle with the likes of ‘minestrone pappardelle’ (“Like the soup, but as a pasta dish”, we’re told) and a starter listed as ‘pecorino & borlotti beans’. It turns out to be exactly that – four thick shavings of snow-white, sheepy, salty cheese and 40 or so earthy, al dente beans seasoned with a drizzle of olive oil and a crack of pepper. To call it pared-back would be an understatement, but it sure makes for a more inspired snack than a bowl of olives might, and signals Ugarte-Carral’s willingness to let good produce lead the way. If you need further proof, consider the fact that you can also order a bowl of watercress soup. At a pub, no less.
The same menu is served venue-wide, with some additional bar snacks catering to the pub crowd. Upstairs, now called Brasserie Fitz, offers more bells and whistles – tables dressed in starchy white cloths set with weighty serviettes, waiter service and the opportunity to make a booking. Such details lend certain dishes – warm, buttery brioche fingers shipping oversized cuts of mackerel; honey bug meat tossed through fregola lathered in bisque-like sauce; a gratifying chocolate and almond tart – the sense of occasion they deserve. Kick back for a long Sunday lunch, and give yourself over to the savvy page-long wine list, a who’s who of Australian lo-fi up-and-comers and some more established European names, with a handful of hard-to-find Belgian lambic beers thrown in for good measure.
So often, new owners and operators mean the death knell for places like the Old Fitz. In 2019, Jaime Wirth, Mike Delany and chef Nicholas Hill breathed new life into the Woolloomooloo fixture with a fitting freshen-up and cut-above cooking that earned the 2020 Time Out Bar Award for best bar food. Now, the Odd Culture Group (the Oxford Tavern, the Duke of Enmore) has taken over and is pretty much picking up where they left off, putting its own stamp on things, but doing exactly what should be done with this dying breed of truly vintage pubs: respecting good bones and keeping the doors open.