I feel like a bit of a fraud writing about the Newtown Social Club without having been to a gig there. A quick glance at their website will tell you that this place is first and foremost a music venue, which is lovely, except that most bands don’t start hauling their amps up the stairs before my bedtime. So this is going to be a review of the drinkey and eatey bits of NSC rather than the venuey bits.
This is the first time we have eaten at the Social Club, but I have had a few quiet settling ales there before plunging on to various quest destinations. One of the things I have noticed is that the front bar seems to have been mainly designed with evacuation in mind. There are very wide front doors and a distinct lack of furniture except around the walls. No doubt this is part of the requirement to get large numbers of sweaty music fans off the premises quickly, but it does limit the opportunities for sitting down with a quiet beer in the front bar.
Out the back though, there are plenty of tables and chairs – and a kitchen. The menu is refreshingly concise. As this venue used to be a pub, I have decided to conscript it for the Burger Wars. In contrast to Deans Diner, there are only two types of burger on offer. You’ve got your meat burger, or your vegie burger. And the pulled pork roll does not pretend to be a burger, which is a refreshing change (I’m looking at you Bank Hotel).
The lighting is so dim that I have to go and stand in front of the blackboard menu before I can actually work out what the fine print says. A pleasant surprise is the prices: $13 for a burger, $9.50 for a pork roll. We try the salt and pepper squid for entree and a beef burger for him and a pulled pork roll for her.
The crowd is mixed. The younger folk are in the front bar where the main feature is the pool table. In the dining area the demographic seems a bit older. Tonight there is a surprising amount of turquoise coloured hair, even for Newtown. There is a large group of women with quite a few attendant children, making me wonder if the Wiggles were playing upstairs, but Strop decided it was just a birthday celebration. The dining room is a good spot for groups, with tables that can easily be dragged into a variety of configurations.
The food doesn’t take too long and is generally good. The squid is tender and spicy with a nice bit of wasabi in the aioli. Always a plus. The insides of the pork roll and the burger are good too, but both are let down by the quality of the buns. My burger suffers near catastrophic failure when all the juices combine with the pressure of my fingers to turn the bun into very tasty, finger-licking mush. Luckily we have plenty of napkins on hand for just such an emergency. The pulled pork and the chili salsa are excellent, and the chips are some of the best we have encountered on the quest. As Strop put it “They were crispy even when they should have been soggy.”
There is a nice noisy relaxed vibe to the Social Club. Good music playing and it’s not too crowded. If they had a few more comfortable places to sit I might become a regular.
It is good to have finally made it to the wrong side of the tracks. I feel that the eateries over here in South Newtown will be more interesting and exotic than the ones we have been visiting lately. I am optimistic – which is a bit of a strange experience for me.
The Townie is a pub’s pub, and it’s not trying to be anything else. It’s not trying to be fashionable, or hip, or Irish. In fact it is barely trying to be a pub. It’s a bit grungy and down at heel, and it attracts a crowd that is less shiny and monied than those across the tracks at the Bank. The Townie is the student-group-house-living-room of pubs. You suspect that most of the patrons at the Townie have a bit of a soft spot for heavy metal bands and playstations.
It has all the usual pub things: screens, bars, TAB, smokers’ terrace, 70s movie posters and a slot car track. What more could you ask for? Well, some food, but we’ll get to that in a minute. I have a bit of a soft spot for the Townie, it is the sort of pub where the stranger at the next urinal will engage you in conversation about the etiquette of talking to other blokes at the urinal. “These young blokes don’t get it,” he says as he zips up and makes his way back to the bar. “They think it’s strange. Freaks ‘em out.” I note that he hasn’t bothered to wash his hands and resolve to avoid shaking his hand if the situation should arise later in the evening.
The Stropolina and I are the first to arrive and we nab a table upstairs near the Bistro. The barmaid is very pleasant if a bit eccentric. She doesn’t talk directly to you, instead providing a real-time commentary on the transaction as it proceeds. “Oh another Coopers Pale, what a surprise. And crisps? Chicken and lime? Too exotic, ha. That’ll be twelve dollars. Weekend prices hey, what’s that about.” Most of the time I had no idea what she was talking about. I just smiled and nodded, and handed over a twenty. Later she came around collecting empties and said, “Ooh look, you’ve made bowls,” (commenting on the way our family open crisp packets by tearing a hole in the side to create a bowl shaped receptacle that allows easy and efficient access to the crisps), “My lab partner taught me how to do that, I’d never seen it before.” She was gone before any witty responses had time to bubble to the surface, so we just kind of smiled and said “Who is she?” and, “What is that accent?”
When Strop arrived the conversation moved on to holidays and the Stropolina’s experiences in Morocco when she was on her first-year-out-of-school-overseas-adventure. Strop and I heard about her encounter with a group of local lads, who invited the Stropolina and her friends back to their apartment. I’m pretty sure she hasn’t mentioned this bit to us before, and luckily they turned out not to be white-slavers, but tagine cookers. They took the girls out around the markets buying ingredients for a slap-up tagine prepared back at the apartment. She didn’t go into what happened after the tagine was eaten. Strop and I like a bit of cous-cous, so maybe we should go to Morocco too, but in the meantime all this talk of food has us hungry. Time to get on with ordering some food of our own.
We are at a pub and that means the burger wars are back on. The menu is a big wall mounted affair featuring all the usual pub offerings. There are pizzas, schnitzels, and steaks, but surprisingly, only two burgers. One is the Townhall Beef Burger, and the other is a schnitzel and bacon burger. I note that there is also a schnitzel and bacon pizza – something of a theme developing there. I choose the eponymous Townhall Burger as does the Stropolina but she is adding cheese to hers, and Strop goes for the schnitzel and bacon burger. There is also a bowl of salt and pepper squid to share.
Having ordered the food, Strop goes to get another round of drinks, returning with three schooners and the news that “She’s the best barmaid in the world, but I don’t want to sleep with her.” It takes me a moment to realise that this is a reference to my experience with the barmaid at the Bank. She then informs us that the barmaid’s hard to place accent, is Israeli. So there’s that mystery solved.
It was only when I saw a collection of burgers lined up on the counter that I noticed that we didn’t seem to have a buzzer or a table number or anything to connect us to the food that we had paid for. Apparently the young woman taking orders had forgotten to give Strop a buzzer, so it was just lucky that my stomach had been getting my eyes to pay attention. Napkins were another absence. Strop eventually ducked behind the counter and helped herself to a handful for the table.
The burgers came in the open position, which always intrigues me. Do they think we’re going to eat a burger with a knife and fork, or is it just to make the application of tomato sauce easier? Assembling the burgers required a bit of manual deftness to avoid spillage, as I soon discover. Strop came a real cropper when her first bite resulted in her burger disassembling itself, and landing in her lap. “Bacon from arsehole to breakfast,” she commented, putting the napkins to good use, scraping aioli off her clothes.
The beef burgers are the traditional burger size (i.e. not too big) which I think is a good thing, and they come with pineapple, beetroot and the now ubiquitous aioli. But they haven’t been made with love, and unfortunately the burger experience is less than the sum of its parts. The chips were disappointing too, and for the first time in living memory I did not finish mine. None of us did.
The Townie has me conflicted. I enjoy the fact that they are not trying too hard, and are happy to just be a pub, but it would be great if they tried a bit harder on the food front. You can still be quirky and laid back, while putting a bit of love into the food you are offering.
Next stop is the Cafe Newtown, which is as close to the exotic temptress that is Enmore Road as we are going to get – for the moment anyway.
Happy New Year? Well, not bad so far but give it time.
On Friday night Strop and I hit King Street again, reinvigorated by our sojourn up the coast and by three weeks forced proximity with young people. Unfortunately we still had our holiday heads on and failed to do even the most basic research before downing a welcome-back Dogbolter and waddling towards Black Sheep. In our enthusiasm to get started again we assumed that Black Sheep was the next place we should be visiting (a quick check of our own blog would have told us that it is not) and nor is Black Sheep even really a qualifying eatery. It is more of a drinkery. A bar that flogs a few tasty tapas-style stomach-liners. By the time we had established all of this, the enticing idea of a nice cocktail had lodged itself in our holiday heads, and a charming tall hipster barman had seated us and taken our order.
Oh well, go with the flow. Live in the moment. Listen to the rather nice music.
While we waited Strop started sorting the postcards she forgot to send when we were on holidays, into geographically based themes, and I tried to remember how to switch off the thing in my new camera that makes it take fifteen of photos of my lap whenever I press the shutter.
The cocktails arrived quickly – an orangey-red rum and amaretto one called the Black Sheep (presumably just because they needed a signature cocktail) for Strop (she liked it a lot) and a very lemony one for me in one of those stupid pretend jam jars. The lemony one was called Atomic Tom and came with a warning. “That one is very sour, let me know if you want me to put some girly sugar in it for you,” said the barman, as he placed it in front of me. Okay, on reflection he may not have actually said girly, but that was what I heard. Any way it was definitely a challenge so there was no way that I was going to admit that his lemony drink was too strong for me, and ask for some girly sugar. Hell no. Luckily after the initial mouth-puckering, it turned out to be very infreshing.
“Food’s taking a while,” Strop said, looking up from her postcards. She was up to the Big Banana at Coffs Harbour by this stage. As is usually the case, as soon as you ask how long your food will be, it suddenly arrives, making you wonder if they have just been hanging on to it to see how long it will take to get a rise out of you. Or maybe it only seems that way if you’re a bit paranoid.
Another, shorter, hairier hipster brought out the food. Grilled chorizo first. “Do you want cutlery for that?” he muttered as he started to disappear. We looked at the sizzling slices of sausage, the big dollop of aioli, and the finely sliced cabbage salad, then we looked at him. Was this a test? Some of the much vaunted hipster irony? Or was he just taking the piss? Or was he a moron? Yes, of course we want fucking cutlery.
Knives, forks, plates and napkins duly arrived, followed soon after by our croquettes. The food was very good, especially the chorizo and the salad, and disappeared very quickly. Which was just as well, because we still had to find somewhere that served actual meals to review.
So apart from the hipster unfamiliar with the function of cutlery, Black Sheep was a pretty good place for a drink and a nibble. But I might just have a beer next time.
My first thought as I sat down at the table Strop had snagged at the back of the Coopers Hotel bistro, was that it was a pity this wasn’t a named restaurant, because then I would be able to order the Crispy Skin Barramundi special that I can smell being prepared in the kitchen. Damn the rules – we will have to stick with burgers or be in flagrant contravention and at risk of letting chaos run amok. But damn that fish smells nice.
Coopers is a contradictory place. Downstairs is all old school pub style with an overlay of hipster grunge while upstairs is kind of modern-bland suburban pub bistro. There are even flowers on the upstairs tables. The only bit of downstairs grunge to make it up the stairs are the menus and the mural we are seated beneath – a colourful streetscape of King Street, featuring the pub on the corner, a punk carrying an Olympic torch, and a ladder leading from the pawn shop up into what looks like a UFO infested sky. It seems to be a fairly accurate rendition of King Street except for the skateboarders on the footpath. In reality they are usually out on the road mixing it with the traffic.
The menus come artfully buried inside actual comic books. At first I thought they were just printed with a comic book style cover, until I noticed that each one was different. It’s a fun idea, but it does seem a bit of a waste of comic books. There is a pretty good rock soundtrack playing when we arrive, which seemed to get louder, to compete with the voices of the punters, as the evening wore on.
The menu is made up of fairly standard pub grub. There are four options in the burger department (Nice Buns). You’ve got your beef, your chicken, your vegetarian option (lentils), and your steak sandwich. We both opt for the Cooper’s Classic Beef Burger, accompanied by a Cooper’s (no relation I’m assuming) Pale for him and a Pinot Noir for her. Strop grimaces at her first taste of the wine, “Bit tart for a Pinot.” My beer tastes like beer.
The burgers arrive on large rectangular plates with the chips up one end and the burger speared into place up the other end. (How did they serve hamburgers in the olden days, before satay sticks became available? You young people probably think that satay sticks have been around forever, but no, they haven’t, at least not in Australia. They probably had them in places like Indonesia and Malaysia where they invented satay, but they’re a bit of a Johnny-come-lately around this neck of the woods, I can tell you – but I digress.) The chips are all gold and yummy looking and there is a little pot of tomato sauce on each plate too. “Is there any aioli by any chance?” Strop simpers before the waitress can scamper out of range. “I can’t be doing with tomato sauce.”
The aioli arrives in another, larger pot, and looks remarkably like mayonnaise. Tastes good on the chips though, especially when mixed with tomato sauce. One nice touch – The Coopers Hotel trusts you with a pepper grinder. There is one on each table. Now there’s a novel idea that we can only hope catches on.
The burgers come with beetroot (tick), cheese with holes in it (tick), aioli (tick), and relish (tick). When Strop takes her first bite the aioli and relish make a break for freedom by squeezing themselves out of the wound in the bun left by the satay stick, which leads to much licking of fingers and lamenting the lack of Wet-Ones. The burgers are pretty good. More stable and less messy than the Burgerlicious burgers. Are they better than the Marly burgers? To tell the truth I can’t remember. As Strop put it, “The burger in the hand is better than the one you remember.” She is full of insight. We enjoyed the burgers but found the chips had us outnumbered, even with the added lubrication of aioli.
With the music getting louder and the lights getting dimmer we decide not to risk dessert (I was almost there with the lychee and coconut parfait, but the mixed berry coulis killed it for me) and head home to drink the last of our whisky. Which we did, all that is left now are two scary looking miniatures of uncertain origin.
Next week we will be crossing the road to Twelve and entertaining Overseas Guests. To tell the truth we are a bit nervous, the word on Twelve hasn’t exactly been glowing – what are we letting our guests in for? Maybe we should dump the quest and head for Enmore Road which everyone says is far funkier. Head says yes, heart says no. Stomach just grumbles.
I was busily working on a schooner of Dogbladder at the Marly when I got a desperate text message from Strop: ‘I’m here already but there’s no beer and no toilets.’ Just another fast food crisis on Kings Street. This is the cost of thoroughness, and our failure to instigate the No Plates-No Deal rule in time. Oh well, the lack of toilets and alcohol are both good excuses for not staying long.
It’s just the two of us tonight, strangely no one else was keen on joining in this one. Which is a pity because the burgers aren’t at all bad.
Burger Fuel is a New Zealand franchise that seems to have plans to take over the world. So far these uppity Kiwis have confined most of their efforts to the Middle East – this is the only outlet in Sydney. The place is very crisp and bright, straight out of the convenience-store school of mood lighting. Stainless steel and lacquered pine are used on the surfaces, and there are vinyl banquette seats, in a colour that used to be known as baby-shit brown. This characterless but functional decor is overlaid with a perfunctory attempt at quirky humour, in the form of a mural (a death’s head labelled ‘born to grill’) and a strange light fitting made out of washers and spark-plugs. There are video screens as well, a deplorable but growing trend in King Street eateries. One screen is advertising specials, and the other seems to be showing a kind of Youtube loop featuring cute furry animals being cute, and hapless young men falling off things. I am quite disappointed that there are no bikini-clad women firing AK47s though. The sound track is loud and of the doof-doof baseline variety. I don’t think Strop and I are the target demographic of this franchise – but then that applies to the whole of King Street really.
The menu on the illuminated board above the counter makes gratuitous use of the word gourmet to distinguish between the various categories. 100%-pure-NZ-grass-fed-beef and fresh-natural-BF-aioli feature heavily, and silly names have been fully deployed to label the burgers in a further attempt at quirkiness.
I am about to lock in the Bastard Burger on the basis of the name alone, until a perusal of the fine print reveals that it features mango. I’m sorry, tinned mango? I don’t think so. Instead I go for the Peanut Piston (defining ingredient: satay sauce) and Strop chooses the Ford Freakout (avocado). In the interests of thoroughness we upgrade to the meal-deal which adds a can of soft drink, a packet of chips and a little tub of aioli. Mayonnaise and garlic, is that the same as aioli? It goes well with chips anyway. Service is prompt and we are soon presented with a tray loaded with paper bags and cardboard containers. And the burgers aren’t bad. And the chips are good (especially with a gleaming gob of aioli resting on the end). On a previous visit I had tried the Ring Burner (chilli), which I also enjoyed. I don’t think they are quite as good as the burgers we had at the Marly but they are pretty good.
By the time we leave the place is full. A crowd that looks and sound as if it is predominantly Kiwi. Out for a taste of their native quirky humour and grass-fed cuisine, no doubt. Meanwhile, we are on our way home for a serving of Broadchurch and a sizeable glass of Highland Park.
Hooray. First pub, first burger. But first I have to wait for Strop to return to civilisation from the outlands of Parramatta where she is working late, finishing things off before going on holidays. So I down a Dogbolter or two, read my Kindly book (Wool – it might be overrated but I am only halfway through), go for a walk, look at the young people, have another Dogbolter…
When Strop arrives she is in a very good mood due to being on hols and going to Fiji in a few days time. I have managed to appropriate a table in the crowded Garden Bar, conveniently close to the loos. The Marly is a Newtown institution, which is not necessarily a good thing in my experience. It has recently had a bit of a makeover though, and the vortex of the redecorating whirlwind seems to have settled on the back bar which has become quite girly and gardeny. There are friezes and murals on the general theme of plants, lots of exposed brick, and even internal window boxes with plastic lavender (I wonder how they dust those).
It’s all a bit gorgeous really. Still, the vibe is lively and the staff are very efficient and friendly. As they all have beards, tatts and oversized earings, the only way to tell them from the punters is by the tea towels they all wear, hanging jauntily from their waists.
Rule Number 6 says burgers, so that’s what we’re having. At first I like the look of the Newtown Cheeseburger – well it’s just the name really, I’m a sucker for a good name – until I read the fine print and realise it is a No-Meat option. No thanks, I’ve been waiting a long time for this burger opportunity and the presence of meat is non-negotiable. So the order at the bar is two Beefburgers With The Lot, another Dogbolter for my good self, and a glass of Rioja for the missus. While at the bar I notice that the top shelf is brimming with single malts and decide to forego dessert in favour of a Talisker later on.
There are pot plants in macrame holders hanging over the bar. I’m glad to see macrame is making a comeback with the hipsters, but it is an odd feeling when the trappings of your formative years become the next generations ironic plaything. Luckily the burgers arrive before I get too depressed by this thought.
The burgers come in little red baskets with chips on the side and they are excellent. Nothing ironic here, just a reverential tribute to the old-school definition of The Lot: egg, bacon AND pineapple. There may have been cheese in there too but I didn’t pause long enough to be sure. And the burgers are not too large in the diameter dimension. They are a traditional burger size, although piled high enough with fillings to warrant spearing with a bamboo reinforcing spike.
Strop decides she would like a bit of mayonnaise to go with the chips. The staff are apologetic, “Sorry we only have aioli.”
“Even better,” says Strop.
The only negative we find is that the buns are a little on the sweet side. This doesn’t worry me but Strop likes to make constructive criticisms. To my mind, the role of the bun in a burger is similar to a napkin, it is only there to keep your fingers clean. All you want to notice about the bun is the toasty inner surface, nicely softened by barbecue sauce and fat.
We finish off the evening with a Lagavulin and a Talisker before stumbling home to fall asleep in front of the television. The Marly has set a high pub-burger standard. I wonder how the others will compare.