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Pub Review: The Exeter, Adelaide

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The beer is fresh and cold, if unspectacular. Coopers features, but otherwise it has a decidedly pedestrian array of beer taps. And the food’s fine although I can’t recall an amazing meal I’ve had in its quirky beer garden.

Ultimately, none of these matter when deconstructing Adelaide’s mighty Exeter Hotel.

Some pubs offer accessibility as their key attraction. A vital yet drearily utilitarian function when you get home after a tough day on the hamster wheel and realise you forgot to take out the chops to defrost, so you barrel down to your local for some cheap schnitzels.

This is not the raison d’être of the X.

Set amidships at 246 Rundle Street in the city’s East End alongside the restaurants, cafes and retailers, a visit to this peerless boozer can set you on the road to Damascus, or at least Kent Town.

Beyond the usual, but still praiseworthy self-promotion of “No Pokies!” the X also positions itself by quietly announcing that pub crawls (Adelaide Uni Engineers: they’re lookin’ at you!), buck’s and hen’s nights and misshapen birthdayers younger than 21 can look elsewhere to celebrate.

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This is a pub that knows its mind. It won’t listen to an hour of AM radio talkback, or watch Q&A and suddenly change its view. It’s a pub that wins the toss on a muggy day, ignores the hectoring of its opening bowlers, and decides to bat.

Just like it always does.

The front bar of the Exeter is an Adelaidean experience par excellence but the grungy microcosm within is removed from the monolithic culture of the day: there’s no which school did you attend? Crows or Port? Mix or Nova? Fruchocs or FUIC? Nonsense you might encounter at other more nakedly aspirational pubs.

Indeed, this incongruity is most welcome and isn’t incompatible with the genteel surrounds: it’s an earthy compulsion. The X, in roaring, bursting flight with its eclectic denizens, is more Soho or Camden Town or Hammersmith pub. As a point of difference, it’s wholly life-affirming.

If the Exeter didn’t exist, it would be necessary to build it.

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Decades back our mate Chris was emigrating to Queensland to work for a software company. So, to mark this, we dined on curry and Kingfisher lager, and then galloped across to the Exeter.

Dawn’s closer than dusk. Only Nick and I remained, our Doc Martins moored to the floorboards. He’s from a farm in Shea-Oak Log. Years ago, we saw the Rolling Stones at Footy Park.

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As always, we navigated travel and bands and film, and our discussion arrived at Harper Lee’s autobiographical masterpiece, “To Kill A Mockingbird.”

Over and through our Coopers, we pondered the novel’s last lines, and admired their uncomplicated elegance. They’re among the finest words printed. After the rush of the climax, we’re left with a painterly scene, a world profoundly restored by the love of Atticus

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He turned out the light and went into Jem’s room. He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.

This is why I love the Exeter.

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Among my favourite writers is the Adelaide Hills-based wine scribe Philip White. Early in my career a highlight was opening Wednesday’s Advertiser in the English faculty office with my then boss and old mate Digby. We’d devour Whitey’s column and belly-laugh and nod. He’s a magnificent author, and naturally, his articles were not about grog, but stories. People, places, events both happy and poignant.

Some years later I finally met Whitey in the Exeter. We yarned at length about much including the account he wrote of the Darwin Stubby Drinking Competition held, of course, at the Humpty Doo pub.

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“I loved the character at the centre of that story, Dave Gaston”, I stated.

Whitey replied. “Yeah, I reckon I compared him to Mick Jagger saying he’d ‘carefree elegance.’”

“You did. And it was great that while Dave won the prize you put a twist in the tail.”

“It was true,” the plonk critic nodded, “The quickest Darwin Stubby guzzler on the day was Norman. A Brahman bull.”

This is why I love the Exeter.

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So, the X can be curmudgeonly. But safely within its ageless walls- check out the TOURIST DIES OF THIRST newspaper billboard behind the bar- you’ll be at this town’s ragged, charming heart and in a place of conversation and character and cheer.

It’s that most rare of locations: the destination pub.

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Songs of Sparkling Shiraz

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Just before her weekly massage Catriona Rowntree eyes the camera coquettishly.

The Getaway audience is transfixed. Where’s tonight’s rubdown? Fiji? Ah, lovely.

But it’s about her voice. A voice, some would suggest, belonging to the blissful space between sleep and waking.

Like Catriona in her fluffy bathrobe, sparkling shiraz is also distinctly Australian.

No matter that the rest of the planet views it like a toasted cheese sandwich in India.

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October long weekends. Our throng stayed two hours’ north of Adelaide at the Clare Country Club. We’d observe an annual routine.

Golf. Dinner at Bentley’s hotel. Golf. Watching the SANFL Grand Final in the Watervale pub (another Port flag). Golf. The Magpie and Stump in drowsy Mintaro, where I first heard a publican inquire, “Another cup of tea vicar?”

The Clare Dragon Chinese restaurant where the crankiest person in the world would serve us: Colleen. Every year she’d mutter, “Well I won’t be here next time you visit. This is driving me mad. I can’t stand it.”

And come next October Colleen’d deliver these same lines like a poem. A poem performed by the cantankerous employee of a regional Chinese eatery.

There’d also be a winery tour. One stormy Sunday we coasted into the Wilson Vineyard near Polish Hill River. At the counter, we began our work with Freddie Flintoff gusto.

A single sip. The subterranean purple hue, the mesmerizing flavor, the sassiness. It was dangerous fun. It was a sparkling shiraz. It was called Hippocrene. I was enthralled.

Poets can be fibbers, but I reckon John Keats got it right in “Ode to a Nightingale”

O for a beaker full of the warm South
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stained mouth;
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim

Tellingly, the parents-in-law smuggled a bottle into England for us to share on my birthday. If a Google map showed who was drinking what across Europe, then we were likely the only sparkling shiraz slurpers. I didn’t care.

Hippocrene was an occasion wine. Sometimes it’d be Christmas. Sometimes the occasion would be Sunday. We only ever had two or three bottles a year, so at the easing of the cork there was always frisson.

Like the Greek civilisation from which it inherited its name, one October the cellar door assistant announced that Hippocrene was no more. “Have you any left?” I begged. Out the back were a few bottles of the ’96. We bought half a dozen.

And then it was gone.

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The Black Chook

This can open the batting at your barbeque. Unlike Watto, it doesn’t plonk down a dumb left pad and get struck plumb. More like Boof, it’s good for a chirpy thirty.

Surprisingly sturdy, it boasts drinkable complexity. And it receives extra points for having the word “chook” in its name.

The Black Chook’s about $18 in Australia, or approaching a hundred bucks and two months’ national service in Singapore.

The Black Queen

A tremendous wine by the late Barossan, Peter Lehmann.

We’d been to Kapunda to climb over and in and on Leo the Train at the Hill Street playground. We’d luncheoned at Masters’ bakery on the main street, helpfully named Main Street. As Dr Evil might say, “Try the sausage rolls. They’re breathtaking.”

Heading home I thought I’d surprise the bride with a bottle of sparkling shiraz. So I said to myself, “Self. Why not actually call into Peter Lehmann’s winery on the way through Tanunda?”

Rather than going to a liquor chain this seemed a retro, fun thing to do. Not so much slaughtering a cow because you fancy a hamburger, but more like listening to Revolver on vinyl.

A profound, exotic gargle, the Black Queen is about $40 in Australia, or the price of an inner-city apartment here on the tip of Malaysia.

Andrew Garrett Sparkling Shiraz

Like a glass of agitated Ribena®. You’d be better off with a wine made by Midnight Oil warbler, Peter Garrett.

Andrew Garrett once tried to sue Westpac for- raise your little finger to the corner of your mouth- eleven billion dollars. I’m less chance to drink this again.

Bleasdale Sparkling Shiraz

Here’s a confession. Langhorne Creek’s an hour south of Adelaide, but it was only three years ago that I first visited. For me, that’s the oenological equal of never having heard 16 Lovers Lane by The Go-Betweens. The Bridge Hotel serves lunch, and you can sit outside, under the obliging gums, with a Coopers Pale Ale.

It’s parched and dusty, but the vines often enjoy winter flooding from the Bremer River. Bleasdale Sparkling Shiraz reminds me of writer and Exeter Hotel inhabiter, Philip White.

When the Advertiser was still a newspaper, he penned a column called Drinks. White once described a wine, I think a Greenock Creek, as being “full of iron and steel, and women and children.” Obviously, this also summarises the Bleasdale.

A snip at $20 for Tony’s Team Australia, or if you’re from the Republic of Singapore, similar coin to a luxury holiday on Koh Samui.

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Sparkling shiraz is the viticultural Skyhooks. Unheard of in Europe. Never caught on in America. Yet enduringly significant and loved in Australia.

For a certain demographic, both provide a cracking soundtrack to backyard barbies.

As the creator of pastoral poetry, and Deniliquin Ute Muster fan Theocritus said, “Now give me goat and cup.”

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