The Australian Pub Has No Equal

With its broad utility as both riotous watering hole and community meeting place, the Australian pub has had a unique effect on the country’s drinking culture. Besha Rodell on how it became the living room that welcomes all Aussies home.

One of my fondest memories involves hanging out with a bunch of bikers at a pub in East Gippsland, in the northeast corner of Victoria, Australia. I was four years old.

The pub in question, the Bellbird, sits on the main road between the timber mills in Cann River and the biggest town in the area, Orbost. My parents and I were there for dinner (a Friday night tradition in those parts) and one old guy at the bar noticed the kid with the hippy parents, homemade dress and blonde pigtails and decided to buy me a drink. A Shirley Temple arrived at our table, “compliments of that gentlemen over there.”

I decided I should return the favor and, with cash in hand fished from my mother’s purse, I approached the bar and tried to buy the guy a beer. He refused my offer—a rebuke I didn’t understand—and the other guys at the bar began to chime in. “C’mon, Bob! Let the little girl shout you.” When he still said no, I burst into tears.

Within seconds, four or five huge dudes—bearded, missing teeth, wearing flannel shirts and leather vests—surrounded me, hoisted me up onto the bar and began hollering their way through “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” in an effort to stop my crying. At the song’s end, Bob gave in and let me buy him a beer.

Before we left that evening, one of the men put a giant helmet on me and took me for a ride on his roaring motorcycle, up the country highway and then back to the pub. I still remember the way the air felt from the back of the bike that night—the thrill of the speed, the smell of the wet, cool forest all around us that provided these men with jobs in the logging mills. Most of them were missing fingers or parts of them from sawmill accidents, battle scars they showed off with glee.

The Bellbird was the first in a long line of pubs that helped to raise me, first in the country and then in the city when we moved to Melbourne. There are all kinds of pubs: trendy pubs, pubs for drunken football fans, upscale pubs attached to fancy hotels, pubs that reflect the neighborhoods they serve. In the inner city suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne, there’s a pub on almost every corner, great hulking 150-year-old icons of both architecture and a way of life.

Lying in bed in my home in Los Angeles a few weeks ago, I suddenly missed the smell of a pub floor—the thing that hits you when you walk through the doors of thousands of establishments in Australia with baffling intensity. I’m not talking about the Ye Olde Bar in a college town, the one that might call itself a pub; I’m talking about a real pub, the kind you cannot find in America. The smell is a little sweet, a little acrid, a little malty: it’s the scent of sweat and cooked meat and old, warn carpet doused in decades of spilt beer.

The smell of beer-soaked carpet is a strange thing to miss, perhaps, but after more than 20 years in a country where Cheers is an archetype we all take for granted, I’ve found it almost impossible to find that place: a bar that feels like home. I have had American dive bars and cocktail bars and wine bars in my life that provided vital, immensely fun socializing, but none that mimicked the broad utility of the pub. I also feel that I’ll age out of my welcome at American bars, unless I relegate myself to a musty hang out for old drunks. Australian pubs are immune to ageism. They are meeting places for families and politicians and workers and incubators for food and music and comedy. They are at the very nexus of the culture.

This importance, in the life of a city and in the culture of a community, is similar to the function of pubs in the UK, which date back more than 2,000 years. When invading Romans brought roads to the area they also brought tabernae, or wine shops, to fortify their troops. Over time, this word morphed into “tavern” and the local alcohol of choice, beer, replaced wine. These taverns and inns eventually became known as “public houses” and those public houses became pubs. Since then, they have served as the center of community life in the UK, especially in smaller towns and villages, but also in cities.

The smell of beer-soaked carpet is a strange thing to miss, perhaps, but after more than 20 years in a country where Cheers is an archetype we all take for granted, I’ve found it almost impossible to find that place: a bar that feels like home.

Australian pubs are directly descended from these British pubs, though history gave them some quirks of their own. The official name of most Australian pubs includes the word “hotel” because until the 1980s, pubs were required to provide rooms for rent in order to have a liquor license. And until the 1970s, most Australian pubs were segregated by gender. Some had “ladies rooms,” but no women were allowed in the main bar. This is a horror of sexism, obviously, but those ladies rooms are part of what made pubs family-friendly in the first place. There was a section of the pub for rowdy drinking and a section for quieter, more genteel social interaction. To this day, many pubs are split this way, albeit without the gender divide: the main bar is where you go to get pissed; the dining room is where you take your kids for dinner.

In an effort to diffuse the Australian penchant for overindulgence, laws were put in place that backfired spectacularly. Beginning during World War I and extending in various states through the 1930s to 1960s, pubs were required to stop selling alcohol at 6 p.m. The resulting rush between the end of the work day at five and the end of the drinking day at six became known as the “six o’clock swill”—a time when working men would rush the pubs and drink as much as they possibly could in the hour before closing. Tile floors and walls became common at that time, enabling bars to be hosed down every evening to wash away the beer and piss and vomit. People still point to the swill as a reason for Australia’s extreme drinking culture.

And it is extreme. A speech and communications lecturer at Victoria University recently claimed that the Australian accent, long thought to be the result of the aboriginal language’s influence on the speech of European settlers, was actually a result of a drunken populace slurring the Mother Tongue. (Is there any better proof for this than “g’day,” perhaps Australia’s most recognizable contribution to speech?) The lecturer’s comments were widely criticized, but anyone who’s spent much time in Australia might have a hard time believing that alcohol did not in some way shape the communications of its residents. I consider myself an avid drinker, but after more than two decades of living in the U.S., I’m still somewhat shocked by the enthusiasm and voraciousness with which my native countrymen drink. Those pubs on every corner of every neighborhood are full by 3 p.m. most days, and beer is as integral to the country as meat or music or friendship, which are all things that the pub provides.

On a recent trip home to Melbourne, I joined my siblings and stepfather and various friends for a meal at The Standard Hotel in Fitzroy. While eating a steak in the 150-year-old dining room, I realized that one of the things I miss most about Australia is the sense of continuity—the way history bleeds into today without seeming “vintage,” or like a throwback of some sort. Like so many pubs, The Standard has been what it is forever: a place where Australia’s history, and my own history, become the present and the future, easily and gracefully.

I’ve been wracking my brain in recent weeks trying to think of an America institution that fulfills the same function as the Australian pub, where casual multigenerational celebrations take place or where the child of hippies might find herself being serenaded by a group of timber workers and bikers. The truth is, I can’t think of one. Community is hard to come by here. Religious folks have church, but outside of that, where do we really gather?

When some Australian expat friends of mine returned recently to Melbourne to show off a new baby, The Standard is where they met for her unveiling, with friends and family passing the wee one back and forth across the table and taking turns buying the proud new parents beers. Even if that baby grows up in America, The Standard is her pub now, like the Bellbird is mine. She can grow up knowing she’ll be welcome as a four-year-old, and welcome as an 80-year-old. And if anything goes awry, someone might step in and buy her a beer. Or sing her a lullaby.