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Pub Review: The Lighthouse Wharf, Port Adelaide

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Lighthouses have significant symbolic power as they represent saving innocent lives, but also those lost to the infinite power of waves. Tributes to consuming love and optimistic simplicity, lighthouses are also emblematic of aspirational elegance.

Besides, who hasn’t entertained the thought of a month in one, with the person of your dreams?

According to them internets Australia’s lighthouses are variously classified as: active, deactivated, destroyed, automated, solar-powered, survived cyclone Tracy, abandoned, struck by lightning, and my favourite, kerosene-driven. Is kerosene still available? I hope so, and might later pop down my local servo with a rusty tin and get some, just to keep in my shed.

With its suggestions of whale-boned corsetry Lady Bay Lower Lighthouse in Victoria is an evocative example while Malcolm Point on Lake Alexandrina features the country’s only inland lighthouse built to support River Murray trade. I can picture Sigrid Thornton frowning beneath its towering majesty in a big frock and bonnet. It was turned off in 1931.

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South Australia has 27 lighthouses and there’s one on the Port River following its relocation in 1986. Red and white, cast iron skeletal and hexagonal, it stands 82 feet tall and is adjacent to the Lighthouse Wharf Hotel.

Drifting in around 5 bells as part of my now annual visit to this part of town I’m impressed by the light and breeze and welcoming mis en scene, all exposed brickwork and craft beer taps. I mention Greg Phillips the former publican, Port Magpie powerhouse and sire of Erin Phillips, herself an icon, but the bar staff reply

“I’m only new.”
“Check with Nick. I’ve only been here a month.”
“Greg who?”

Waiting for my $5 happy hour pint of Coopers Pale Ale (delicious and inexpensive) I note a poster advertising the pub’s Trivia Quiz Nights. I can only conclude that these include questions like

What is the most common form of trivia?
Did Shakespeare use the word trivia in any of his comedies?
What are the top five topics for trivia in Moldova?
Should pubs avoid tautology in their marketing and have either trivia nights or quiz nights?

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Old mate Bob and his lad Jack join me out the front and we take in the Customs House, sailing ships and knots of punters (maritime metaphors are compulsory down here) who are also in their Thursday, Adelaide Test eve, chirpy cups. Jack has a Coke and a bag of chips, which is surely all that an eight-year-old needs after basketball training and with a mere month until Christmas.

Nautical suburbs are inescapably compelling and Port Adelaide, with its tangle of narrow streets and grand architecture, is wonderful. However, its promised rejuvenation seems a way off. Bob and I agree that a key strategy must be to increase the local population with affordable housing.

The Hilltop Hoods are playing in the background and urging us in myriad ways, to myriad unforeseen destinations. We have another beer.

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Lighthouses feature in music too. British prog-rock pioneers Van der Graaf Generator have a song in their sludgy catalogue called, “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers,” a ten-part, 23-minute concept piece ruminating on the complexities of lighthouse keeping, what with all those storms and ships smashing upon jagged rocks and sailors perishing. But it’s not blasting over the speakers in this beer garden today.

I prefer Sydney troubadour Josh Pyke’s paean to these beacons called, rather unconfusingly, “The Lighthouse Song.” It’s about the beauty of binary and the need to flee a crushing planet.

So we are moving to a lighthouse, you and I
While seas drown sailors, we’ll be locked up safe and dry
And though our doors may knock and rattle in the wind
I’ll just hold you tight and we’ll not let those fuckers in

We vow to return soon. There’s much left to experience such as a meal hopefully not featuring a schnitzel inexcusably crushing its desperate bed of hot chips, live music, and that most potent symbol of great hostelry, the giant connect four game in the beer garden.

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Pub Review: The Birkenhead Tavern, Port Adelaide

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It sits alone.

At once alluring but also brazen like a Bond villain. Under twilight it could be in a Hitchcock movie, dominating the landscape as the Bates Motel does its Californian corner. Although if painted in pastel yellow and pink the façade’s symmetry might be reminiscent of a Wes Anderson film, provided Bill Murray was in laconic shot.

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The cinematic concept of mis en scene describes the artistic arrangement of the background, props, lighting etc on a film set, and is relevant here. Making a westward crossing of the eponymous bridge there’s no adjacent buildings, and the dusty car park surrounds it like a dry moat. I’m immediately struck by the frontier psychology at play.

Architecturally, the context is that the only pub on the Port River, the Birkenhead Tavern, is itself utterly decontextualized.

It’s a remarkable site (and sight).

In the Riverview bar I’m agog at the water and blue light. The panoramic sweep includes the river, red lighthouse, Dolphin Explorer cruising ferry (unfortunately not captained by Flipper), and idle sheds and docks.

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A fierce southerly rushes the river past at a decent clip. Occasionally, king tides flood the pub forcing it to stand amid the lapping waves like a rebellious Atlantis.

On this, my biennial visit, I’m at a table in the racing corner, but looking out. The bar’s busy with burly high-vis chaps and retirees and burly high-vis retiree chaps. It’s Happy Hour and I order a Pale Ale ($5.50).

Suddenly, there’s scattered outbursts as a roughie gets up in the last at Queanbeyan. A wizened, skinny bloke barks, “It’s won at $97!” This spurs further eruptions, but these are only monologues from embittered punters. There’s no conversation, just forlorn observation.

“I can’t bloody believe it,” a bearded fellow accuses his West End Draught stubby.

“You’re joking,” murmurs another to an uncaring, inattentive divinity.

Pubs can be solitary spaces, especially for the fiscally anguished.

In the Port’s narrative this boozer has been a compelling character, since the days when it was a local for workers who caught the ferry across the river after work, and also when the upstairs light was flicked on and off signalling that the constabulary should slip in the darkened door for their nocturnal beer.

Publicans and wallopers have long shared murky relationships, as at least locally, policing the Port and guarding against illegal trading is traditionally thirsty work. Beyond an arresting location and a clutch of exotic punters what does the Birkenhead Tavern offer?

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A poster tells me there’s live music with an endless line of Sunday strummers, many of whom, of course, are called Josh. On the front lawns eager anglers can seduce bream and mulloway but there’s no outdoor sink at the pub to gut your catch.

Meanwhile the pub’s website features multiple photos of Port Power footballers but as these are without a caption, I’m unsure if they’re on the menu with chips, coleslaw and complimentary garlic bread, or that you might simply enjoy one with some fava beans and a nice chianti.

Unsurprisingly, the cuisine is described as pub, and I also note steak and ale pie on the special’s (sic) board, reminding me of when our newlywedded friends Brett and Trish were in Dublin, and Steak and Guinness pie was on offer. Ever polite, Brett asked the bar staff, “So, what’s in the Steak and Guinness pie?”

The young Irish fellow gazed at, and perhaps beyond Brett, and tonelessly mumbled, “Steak,” and blinking once, added, “Guinness.”

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