The Renaissance of The Great Australian Pub Counter Meal, with Chef Paul Wilson. Melbourne, Victoria. Copyright © 2022 Terence Carter / Grantourismo. All Rights Reserved.

The Renaissance of The Great Australian Pub Counter Meal

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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 the recent renaissance of the great Australian pub meal in Melbourne.

Tucking into a pub counter meal is a quintessential Australian eating experience – despite being something we Aussies inherited from our British ancestors. Aussies and Brits both grew up with pub counter meals. Lara and I were raised in the suburbs of Sydney and Brisbane in Australia and 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 did long outback road trips in Australia in four-wheel-drives updating travel 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 pub counter meal? And what and who has been responsible for its revival? First we look at the history of pub counter meals in Australia and then we chat to chef Paul Wilson, the man who has driven the renaissance of the counter meal in Melbourne pubs.

The Renaissance of The Great Australian Pub Counter Meal

Historically, the Australian pub counter meal consisted of a feed of cheese and bread offered to customers in Aussie country 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 dinner 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’ (sausages with mashed potatoes).

Ever since, pub counter meals have followed fashion, just like café food. After a couple of decades of everything from chicken parmas, ‘surf ‘n’ turf’ and Asian stir-fries to salt and pepper calamari, chicken schnitzel, and anything with potato wedges with sour cream and sweet chilli sauce being served up, there’s been a return to some of the great Australian pub counter meal classics.

Now the succulent Sunday roasts and hearty meat pies and sausage rolls are being refined and 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.

The Renaissance of The Great Australian Pub Counter Meal, with Chef Paul Wilson. Melbourne, Victoria. Copyright © 2022 Terence Carter / Grantourismo. All Rights Reserved.

Chef Paul Wilson’s The Melbourne Pub Group, which owns The Middle Park HotelThe Albert Park HotelThe Newmarket, and The Prince, has been central to the revival of local pubs in Melbourne 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.

After enjoying a traditional Sunday Lunch at The Middle Park Hotel, where it was great to see families sharing Sunday roasts around a table like they would at home, we chatted to chef Paul Wilson in the light-filled new Circa restaurant at The Prince, about the pub counter meal revival and his role in its rebirth.

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 recognised 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 pub 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


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Terence Carter is an editorial food and travel photographer and infrequent travel writer with a love of photographing people, places and plates of food. After living in the Middle East for a dozen years, he settled in South-East Asia a dozen years ago with his wife, travel and food writer and sometime magazine editor Lara Dunston.

6 thoughts on “The Renaissance of The Great Australian Pub Counter Meal”

  1. We love eating at the counter. You’ve really captured the essence of this fun way to enjoy a meal.


    Larissa and Michael

  2. It’s so refreshing to read a positive piece about Australia and one that makes me miss the small things like a pub lunch.

  3. Totally agree! Especially when you’re in outback/country pubs in Australia – everyone sits at the bar eating, drinking, and chin-wagging to the barman, so you get to meet all the local characters. Great fun!

    Thanks for dropping by, you two :)

  4. Thanks Carina, but does that mean you’ve only read negative pieces? There’ll be lots more where that one came from, so do visit again. Thanks for stopping by!

  5. I will never forget my first counter meal. (1962, I think). I had a steak … and I remember the barman’s look of disbelief when he asked how many eggs I wanted with it, and I said ‘Just one!’

  6. I love it that you remember the year of your first counter meal, Keith :) I assume that was in the Australia outback where a couple of eggs and a mountain of steaks, sausages, mash/fries, and veg is the norm.

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