The great Australian pub counter meal has undergone a significant transformation since we left Australia in the late 1990s. Last week we chatted to Chef Paul Wilson, one of the culinary forces responsible for its recent renaissance in Melbourne.
Counter meals — while being something we Aussies inherited from our British ancestors — are nevertheless quintessentially Australian. We both grew up with pub counter meals. When our parents didn’t feel like cooking and didn’t want restaurant food, we’d head to the local pub for a counter meal.
When Lara and I later did long outback trips in four-wheel-drives while writing guidebooks, we survived on evening counter meals at country pubs. Our most vivid memories, however, are of steaks too tough to chew through, dry overcooked roasts cloaked in cloying gravy, and watery vegetables that had clearly been living in a freezer rather than the earth for a few months.
So what is a counter meal? Traditionally, it was a feed of cheese and bread offered to customers in Aussie pubs during the gold-rush era of the 1860s. Being free, it was a way of bringing clients to the hotel and giving them some sustenance while drinking, as well as a gesture intended to attract travellers passing through.
As pubs battled with each other by doing increasingly elaborate spreads, it transformed from being a free meal to one that was affordable. Although the counter meal disappeared by the 1920s, it was revived during the Great Depression which began in 1929, in the form of hearty fare such as ‘bangers and mash’.
Ever since, counter meals have followed fashion, just like café food. After a couple of decades of everything from ‘surf ‘n’ turf’ and Asian stir-fries to salt and pepper calamari and anything with wedges, sour cream and sweet chilli sauce being served up, there’s been a return to some of the great Australian pub counter meal classics such as succulent roasts and hearty meat pies. But now they’re made with fresh, local, seasonal Australian produce, and an attitude that celebrates homely classics rather than over-thinking and deconstructing dishes into less satisfying pastiches.
Chef Paul Wilson’s The Melbourne Pub Group, which owns The Middle Park Hotel, The Albert Park Hotel, The Newmarket, and The Prince, has been central to the revival of local pubs, from venues where you only eat out of desperation to places where you want to leisurely spend a day or night, eating and drinking with family or friends. The Middle Park Hotel’s delicious counter meals and popular Sunday lunch virtually erased our childhood memories of bad pub counter meals.
It must be said, however, that while the Melbourne Pub Group’s stylish refurbishments and new menus might appeal to us, they have not met universal praise (check the comments on this story in The Age). Some locals lament the loss of sticky beer-soaked carpets and shitty schnitzel, while the Group’s recent take-over of The Prince hotel has St Kilda locals and music fans worried about the future of the iconic band room and the front bar. We chatted to Chef Paul Wilson in the light-filled new Circa restaurant at The Prince.
For more interviews with locals from Melbourne and beyond see our Local Knowledge series of interviews with local experts and insiders from around the world.
Interview with Chef Paul Wilson on the great Australian pub counter meal
Q. Were counter meals part of your early life? Did you have nostalgic reasons for embarking upon a counter meal crusade?
A. As a child in England the family would go on a mission to find a good pub lunch. Being a Melburnian — a new one, a pom arriving in Melbourne — I certainly recognized there was a gap in the market for a good pub lunch and it was like the ambition for The Melbourne Pub Group. Melbourne had great cafes, great fine dining restaurants, great wine culture, but it didn’t have a great pub culture really. It had a couple of great venues, but not many. We really wanted to rebrand pubs in Australia, so we started with the food, taking an old favourite (the counter meal) and giving it some importance and good produce, but still making it like feel like it’s a pub meal and has a sense of place — it’s familiar and affordable.
Q. Historically, the counter meal served to feed the often single, working class man after work who wanted to sit at the bar and have a meal.
A. It’s still much the same really. With the Middle Park Hotel we moulded it on an old travellers rest, a place you stopped on a way to a destination or on your way home where you could eat and drink well — and affordably — and sit on your own and have a good experience. We wanted to create two price points in the same way that the airlines have economy and business class. We wanted to do that too, so eating at the Middle Park could be three or four days a week or could be a special occasion.
Q. The Middle Park Hotel seems to typify the new breed of pub, feeling both traditional and modern.
A. With the Middle Park Hotel, we never really knew where the food would take the business. It was set up to be a beverage business, as you can tell by the size of the bars compared to the size of the restaurant, and the food was a secondary to the drinking. The drinking side of it didn’t really take off as we hoped but the food did. I think it was the quality of the food and the honesty of the food that really resonated with people at the time.
Q. We had Sunday Lunch at the Middle Park and it was great to see families sharing Sunday roasts around a table like they would at home.
A. Sunday Lunch is such a European, British and Aussie tradition and it works well for this venue. It was set up to be that offering — the classic pub cornerstones — and give them a makeover without changing their charm. The weekend roasts were a way for us to buy large volumes of rare-breed meat and put on a good quality weekend lunch at a really good price.
Q. What makes for a brilliant counter meal? And does the bloke who pops in after work care about seasonality or the breed of pig you use?
A. Well it’s very diverse and the menu reflects that. There’s comfort food on there. We do a terrific chicken schnitzel and we do fantastic fish and chips and a good shepherd’s pie. We also do a rare-breed roast, so it’s got something for everyone. And whoever you are it just makes you feel better, so it’s a feel-good thing. We’re in the pleasure business — our aim is to make people feel a lot better about their day, have a good meal for under $20, and a nice drink — everyone deserves that little bit of luxury after a hard day at work. It’s what we try to do at all our venues really, and the Middle Park’s strength is that it’s comforting, very friendly, very homely.
Q. If your last meal was a counter meal, what would it be?
A. A pie — pies are fantastic! I wanted to do an Aussie classic, a pot belly pie was researched to be a real iconic Melbourne dish from years ago, and we wanted this to be a signature at Middle Park.
The Middle Park Hotel
102 Canterbury Road, Middle Park