129 Dowling St
|opening hours||Pub from noon daily; brasserie Mon-Wed 5.30-9.30pm; Thu 5-11.30pm; Fri-Sat noon-late; Sun noon-10pm|
|Features||Pub dining, Licensed, Bar, Pre-post-theatre, Accepts bookings, Outdoor seating|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|payments||eft pos, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||02 9356 3848|
You can tell a lot about a pub for its chips. Limp and unseasoned: the hotel cares more about pokies than you. “Pale ale-battered”: the chef uses cheap tricks to distract from insipid food. Hand-cut: this place must be backed by serious cash if it can afford to pay someone to slice potatoes all day. Frozen: fine, for the most part – with the right oil and cooking time.
At The Old Fitzroy, chef Toby Stansfield uses pre-cut sebago spuds, fries them to a color more bronzed than Kirk Douglas in spartacus, then dust the crunchy rods in a blend of kombu seaweed and white pepper. I always thought you couldn’t create a more outrageously savory seasoning than chicken salt – Australia’s third greatest invention after the Hills Hoist and Warwick Capper – but at this backstreet Woolloomooloo boozer, here we are.
The Old Fitz has long been a pub-lovers’ pub, a locals’ favorite for its “Same again?” service, vintage bric-a-brac and dog-friendly attitude. Stansfield’s chips indicate he wants people to cross suburbs to eat at Bistro Fitz – the smart-casual brasserie upstairs from the public bar – too. The frites also tell me that he knows bucketloads of umami is essential for crowd-pleasing pub food that can go toe-to-toe with any schooner or shiraz.
Stansfield was leading the kitchen of CBD pasta shop Fabbrica before taking over the Fitz’s pans in June after chef Anna Ugarte-Carral announced she was leaving the pub. Compared to the previous Basque-ish menu, the new carte is more pubby and pan-European, with some influence coming from a time when crockpots and vol-au-vents ruled the world.
Diane sauce swamps the $34 sirloin those chips are served with. It’s a lean, clean-flavored steak served on the right side of pink.
Toasted brioche ($8) ferries mayonnaise and confit roast chicken with intimate knowledge of duck fat; it’s the kind of snack I imagine posh folk eating during the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. I love it.
Crudites with gribiche ($16) have a similar 1970s vibe, particularly the they’ll-be-here-in-a-minute dinner party starter of farm-crisp carrots and radishes standing in an egg and cream sauce sharpened with mustard and briny capers . You could – and should – swipe chips through it, too.
While downstairs is a controlled ruckus of patrons clinking Reschs, the bistro feels part members-only club and part your nan’s front room. There are chandeliers and jazz and cabernet-red walls covered in landscape prints that might have been found at Chester Hill Salvos.
A small front-of-house team is led by hospitality legend Traci Trinder, who can anticipate a customer’s needs in a way that never seems overbearing. “Why yes, we would like a bottle of A. Rodda Aquila Audax Tempranillo 2019 ($85) from Beechworth so that its fine tannins can travel across the steak frites and a coal-roasted spatchcock marinated in chipotle, paprika and a little honey ($32). How did you know?
Best of luck, however, finding a wine to stand up to the $22 insalata di mare (cold seafood salad to you and me), featuring mussels and octopus sliding around a bowl with black beans, wide chilli oil and fermented garlic. It’s an intensely rich endgame, best eaten on a baguette supplied by Paddington’s Organic Bread Bar ($5).
Semolina trofie – that short, twisted, slightly chewy pasta – is $24 and coated with pine-nut pesto in the Ligurian tradition. It’s fine but forgettable and should probably be marked on the menu as “FVO” (For Vegetarians Only).
The taramasalata ($14), meanwhile, needs one of those “Here be dicey waters” sea dragons found on maps of Terra Australis. The whipped cod roe needs more whipping, not to mention acid, salt and a reason to exist. Avoid.
There’s a crepe cake ($15) layered with dulce de leche cream and covered in poached rosella flowers. It’s balanced, filling and pretty. Clap, clap.
But a $6 scoop of one of the ice-creams du jour (chocolate, parmesan or saffron) is all we really need to cap an agreeable evening, perhaps with a whiskey or two on the side.
The evening isn’t capped there, of course, because we’re at a pub and it’s a Friday night and there’s beer. Downstairs, our group empties paints and talks about nothing in particular until it’s last drinks and time for the regulars and their dogs to leave. On the way back home, I wish The Old Fitz was my local. That says a lot about a pub, too.
Open: Lunch, Fri-Sun; dinner daily
Vibes: Schnitzel-free pub dining with hits from the ’70s, ’80s and today
Go to dish: Brioche toast with confit chicken, mayonnaise and dill
Drinks: Solid line-up of dependable and mostly natural wines, plus tap beer and fruity cocktails
Cost: About $110 for two, excluding drinks
This review was originally published in good weekend magazine