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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.

*

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.

*
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.

*

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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Pub Review: The Crown, Victor Harbor

 

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If petite bread rolls deliver doughy joy then the frisson when these are also hot from the oven is seismic. Surely a clear sign of a caring god, or at least, reliable electricity.

This unexpected bliss began our Friday night meal at the Crown Hotel. Driving into Victor Harbor as the wide bay swims into happy view I wondered how our boys hadn’t been here previously for an extended visit yet had holidayed to the Bavarian Alps, artistic Left Bank in Paris and Murray Bridge’s world-class Bunyip.

Having checked-in at our caravan park digs and positively appraised the bunk beds, bouncy pillow and decidedly unappealing pool we drove to Warland Reserve with its twin pubs standing sentinel over the foreshore.

Upon presenting our boisterous trio at the bistro, the pub staff now appraised us silently and then did what I’d do which is to quarantine us in a marginalised corner away from the quiet, undeserving diners. In hospitality circles I’m sure this is some form of pre-emptive damage control. There was an American college football game on TV, but disappointingly it didn’t feature Purdue. It was Boise, Idaho’s finest.

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Our boys were drawn instantly and they assured me, ravenously, to the salad and vegetable bar. It would’ve been easier to stop an aspiring reality television star (read: talentless, vacuous twit) from taking a selfie.

Pleasingly, their lemonades were served in sturdy plastic cups. You know, the coloured models that you used at your cousins’ place for cordial after you’d been running about or chucking rocks at your footy, now stuck at the top of a eucalypt.  

As a fan of haute cuisine Max chose the Italian Hawaiian Irish fusion. Unfortunately, when his ham and pineapple pizza and chips arrived, despite his father’s sobbing implorations, he was chock-a-block with hot bread rolls. I had the pizza on Saturday, save for the solitary bite Max had taken.

Boise was constantly handing the ball back to their opponents as they couldn’t get their passing or running games to fire. Out the window, and across the reserve I could see the lights of the amusements and the Ferris wheel.

I trusted that the compulsory mangy dog would be there, wandering and weeing and roaming about in a vaguely menacing way when we visited in the morning and like a drunk bookie, I forked over wads of cash to a carnie.

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As a ten-year-old Alex is on the cusp of moving from kid’s meals to adult portions, and this causes me emotional if not fiscal despair. But tonight, he’s happy to tackle the nuggets and chips.

When served they’re not the traditional ones shaped as rectangles or ovals: these are in the form of dinosaurs confirming what archaeologists having been telling us forever which is that if we visit Jurassic Park, take down a T-Rex, and cook it, it will, of course, taste like chicken. He inhales them as if he’ll soon need the energy to outrun a velociraptor.

Continuing our involuntary theme of transmogrified chicken my Kiev arrives. It’s been a while and my excitement had risen, like that of a rooster when sunrise is imminent over the henhouse.

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While the Ukrainian geography of my chook was nebulously accurate I think its origins were not in Kiev but more precisely 142 kilometres to the north of the capital in Chernobyl.

I suspect the meal may have come directly from reactor number 4 itself. How else to explain the impossibly dry and disastrously crunchy properties, other than thermonuclear accident?

I felt especially sorry for the cold garlic butter that had presumably been once trapped in this poor poultry, all trace now gone, doubtless a victim of irradiation’s cruel physics. I may have been better off with the amusement park hound.

Luckily, I hadn’t downloaded a Geiger counter app to my phone or it would’ve now been clicking away like a barn full of tap-dancers, attempting a world record.  

Still, we all survived and retired to our cabin. The footy was about to start and the weekend was upon us. We were in front.

Afterall, we’d had hot bread rolls.

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Pub Review: The Bunch of Cherries, Hertfordshire, AL4 0XG

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Telling stories in the pub.

A distant Friday.

Staff from Nicholas Breakspear RC School (named for the only English pope) around a sticky table, torn crisp packets, glasses up and down like Eiffel Tower elevators.

Fiona, my beautiful, now departed friend tells the story of a study tour to Russia. She was a fine raconteur: comical, self-deprecating, a contagiously animated narrator. At school, Fiona had been assigned as my mentor. I was in good hands. I miss her.

Local sixth form students. Saint Petersburg accommodation in a grey block, the building sinister and cavernous. Unshaven men, whispering in hoarse conspiracies, Stalinist treachery lurking like toxins.

Fiona then recounts this conversation with a pair of students, both eighteen, both built like men, but with boyish hearts.

“Where did you two get to last night?” Fiona asked, in that direct, yet gentle way she had.

“Well, Miss, Billy and I went for a walk, you know, around the motel.” Henry kicked at the frozen ground.

“Then we somehow ended up in the basement.”

Fiona was curious. Not mad, just yet. “What was in the basement?”

“Well, Miss, there was a club. Yeah, I guess you’d call it a club,” Henry offered.

Fiona continued. Still not mad. She rarely got mad. Everyone loved her. “And what happened next?”

“There was a huge man at the door of the club.”

“Like a bouncer?”

“Yeah, Miss.”

“Henry, was it an adult club?” Fiona had a way that quietly extracted the truth. She made the kids feel safe.

“Well, yeah, Miss. It was a strip club.”

“Henry, this is a problem.”

“Yeah, I guess, Miss. But the bouncer let us in for half-price,” he chirped, pride swelling his chest.

“Why?”

“Because we’re still at school!”

*

We lived in St Albans, just north of London, in Hertfordshire, and there were eighty pubs! The older ones, in the city centre, are charismatic, and gorgeous. Simply strolling through a door can be a celestial experience.

The Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, down the hill from the Cathedral, dates back twelve hundred years. It’s the country’s oldest pub. Others like The Six Bells are enticing antique taverns, with exposed beams and squat ceilings and rugby murmurings.

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My Friday afternoon pub, The Bunch of Cherries, up the road from my school, was built in the 1950’s on the outskirts of town. Architecturally, it had less allure than an abattoir. It was of a style that could be called “Red Brick Hideous.”

But, for the thirty months we lived there, I loved it.

I recently found a yellowing receipt from one of those Fridays during June when life was freshly abounding. With the transaction complete and diverse glasses plonked on the table, I fell into my chair: physically, psychically and fiscally powerless to speak or sip. In time, I recovered.

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It was tremendous fun.

As you will note, it was an elongated shout, and offers insight into this ample and eclectic crew-

Two pints of lager (Carlsberg)
Two pints of Real Ale (Black Sheep Best Bitter)
A half pint of lager (Stella Artois)
Two glasses of New World Chardonnay (South Eastern Australia)
One glass of Old World white wine (suitably vague)
A rum and coke
A nip of brandy
Two bottles of orange juice (small)
A house champagne
A gin and tonic
Three ginger beers (diet)
A mineral water
A pot of black tea
Six packets of crisps
One chip butty

I can’t recall if there were TVs showing football replays, or piped music (doubtless Robbie Williams, the Bug-Eyed Yelper), or other distractions. This, of course, is high praise for the Cherries, as conversation is the ECG of a merrily functioning boozer.

Beyond several tonnes of pork scratchings, Walkers crisps, and peanuts I didn’t eat a meal there, ever. It wasn’t that sort of pub. There was a wobbly, self-imposed curfew which barred the communal breaking of bread. So, I can offer no analysis of its bangers and mash; nor its scampi, chip and peas; nor its gammon steak and eggs.

Home was by Verulamium Park, three miles away by bike through Fleetville, The Camp and Cottonmill. I’d take the Alban Way, a former rail line and now cycle path, popular among misshapen youth for torching stolen Vauxhalls and scooters. Seared metal skeletons are oddly attractive when covered in snow.

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But, at 4pm of a Friday with the summer sun still high in the pale Home Counties sky, or with the sleety dark rattling the Christmas windows, it was a bright place to invest a jovial hour with the folks from work. Folks with whom I shared a vivid, momentary corridor.

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Nearly a decade after leaving we visited one January with our boys, who tore about in the pub as boys will do, to the constant horror of their parents and the indifference of most others.

Only the red brick exterior remained. Inside had been renovated, but in a disingenuous way. Now superficially stylish and too polished, as if it would soon have souring aspirations, it had been renamed The Speckled Hen.

My disenchantment was exaggerated for it was a Tuesday. For me, the Friday stories at the Bunches of Cherries were long finished. But they had been magnificent, a cheery symbol of an enchanted time.

Of course, the worst pub in town just might have been the best.

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