The Ironies of the ‘Public House’

My interest in the contemporary Melbournian pub began with an expensive Northcote parmigiana.  As I tapped my card to facilitate the transfer of $26 from my bank account to the EFTPOS machine, I found myself wondering whether a pub meal was always this expensive. Sure, the cost of a chicken parmigiana must cover the price of ingredients, and the labour of preparing, cooking and serving the meal.


Originally published in Edition 2 (2022) of Farrago. 


My interest in the contemporary Melbournian pub began with an expensive Northcote parmigiana. 

As I tapped my card to facilitate the transfer of $26 from my bank account to the EFTPOS machine, I found myself wondering whether a pub meal was always this expensive. Sure, the cost of a chicken parmigiana must cover the price of ingredients, and the labour of preparing, cooking and serving the meal. Ensuring restaurant workers are well-paid for their work is essential, as is making sure establishments stay afloat. But $26 was a little steep for my budget. 

When researching similar venues in Melbourne’s inner north, I found that $26 is a pretty standard price for the humble parma. You’ll pay $26 at the Northcote Social, a beloved pub and live music venue, as at the cult-favourite The Retreat in Brunswick. You’ll only fork out a dollar less at the Prince Alfred, which sits just across the road from the University of Melbourne and is filled with students by 5pm. The modern pub meal is decently expensive—sometimes embellished with micro herbs and jus—far from the image of a cheap and sufficiently greasy, meaty meal conjured up by the affectionate term of ‘pub grub’. 

This ‘upmarket’ pub meal serves to exclude those with a tighter budget, essentially pricing out lower-income groups from eating at these venues. But why does this matter? The pub, short for ‘public house’, has traditionally been constructed as a welcoming space. The name itself suggests a site for community, congregation and celebration—a home outside of home. But, if the modern pub is increasingly expensive and an unfeasible option for lower-income groups, is the pub truly public anymore?

The contemporary pub is an offshoot of the Roman taverns in Britain, where lower-class groups met to eat, drink and gamble. They were sites of crime and violence, with men entering from the street wearing veils and engaging with sex workers. Alehouses and inns in the Middle Ages also contributed to the development of the pub and its role as a community meeting place. The modern-day Australian pub is a descendant of British and Irish traditions, with Australia’s beer-drinking culture, for instance, directly inherited from this history. In early colonial Australia, pubs were quickly established, generating commerce and providing employment. Establishments like the Mitre Tavern in Melbourne’s CBD have stood since British colonisers declared Melbourne to be a city. In the modern pub, games like pool and trivia, gambling and live music are common forms of entertainment and pull in customers.

The inclining price point of a pub feed is not the first instance of the ‘public house’ contradicting the openness suggested in its name. The Australian pub, etched into the landscape of the country, is a British imperialist symbol. Both the permanence and omnipresence of the pub serve to mark out the incursion of British cultural practices, and the ways they continue to govern the lives of First Nations peoples. Historically, the pub was unwelcoming to Indigenous peoples due to practices of segregation, often under the guise of ‘protection’, alongside racist attitudes amongst white Australians. Stories of contemporary pub segregation continue to emerge, exploring the insidious methods by which establishments ‘lawfully’ keep Indigenous and non-Indigenous patrons separated. The tradition of segregation in Australian pubs continues to this day. One example is by refusing Indigenous customers admission to the main bar on the basis of dress code, and instead allowing them entry to run-down rooms out the back

The dialectic between the pub and colonial structures is distinctly clear at The Builders Arms on Gertrude Street, Fitzroy. The Builders Arms was the first non-segregated pub in Melbourne, openly welcoming Indigenous customers. The pub became an important meeting place for Fitzroy’s Indigenous community, alongside other sites in the area like the Gore Street Church. Andy Price was the bar manager at The Builders in the mid-2000s. He told me he witnessed firsthand the friction between the history of the pub and its modern identity as an upmarket food and drink venue. The Builders is “a snapshot of how Fitzroy has been developing”, Andy said, reflecting the challenges posed by gentrification, and the difficulty of preserving the pub’s unique identity. The Indigenous history of the Builders is commemorated by a plaque etched into the side of the building, acknowledging its role in fighting against segregation. Yet, as Andy noted, there is a general lack of awareness of the significance of the venue, and a risk of this history being forgotten entirely as the pub continues to evolve.  

The pub is a masculinised domain—both in its traditional and contemporary iterations. Historically, women were barred from sections of the pub, with specific ‘Ladies Bars’ catering to female clientele. Women were charged more for beverages, or unable to place orders without a male chaperone. In Queensland, this segregation persisted until 1970, when the Liquor Act was altered following protests. Hyper-masculine attitudes still exist in the pub space despite the inclusion of women in the public bar. In 2016, a Perth pub received backlash after displaying sexist signs advertising a frat party. Most instances of sexism in the pub, however, receive far less press attention. Stories of harassment and assault are commonplace, often going unreported. And, though it may be easy to assume that unwanted sexual attention occurs mostly within the confines of dodgy clubs, the local pub also forms a backdrop for these incidents. As such, the pub remains an environment where women are trained to act with caution: don’t accept drinks from strangers, keep your glass covered, look out for your friends. 

For women who work in the pub, the masculine culture of the space shapes all aspects of the job. In Australia’s emerging pub scene, ‘barmaids’ were often widowed women or former female convicts. Their role extended beyond serving drinks—they provided company to their male clientele, who in turn projected their desires onto the barmaids. Male customers viewed barmaids as seductive and sexually powerful, with some groups fighting to ban the barmaid, claiming they lured men in and encouraged them to drink. Despite the mythos which surrounded the barmaid, employment in the pub was still granted to women prior to the capacity to be a customer in some Australian states. 

Nowadays, female bartenders continue to face sexism and harassment both from customers and fellow employees. Amy*, 21, works at a large pub in Richmond. She spoke to me of the “boys club” amongst the male supervisors and managers, and a lack of female representation in leadership, leading to her feeling as though she has to “work harder than [her] male counterparts to establish [herself]”. Amy relayed stories of being made to feel uncomfortable by customers—in one instance, when she reported this to her supervisors, no action was taken, leaving Amy “close to walking out on the spot”. Amy also spoke to me of the catch-22 of the tight-knit pub community: filing official complaints could potentially impact her employability in the future, yet a lack of action allows for sexist attitudes in the pub to continue to fester. Amy is hopeful of finding a better bartending environment elsewhere, yet wary that these experiences of sexism are relatively common within the pub scene. 

Currently, the pub occupies a strange position in our social fabric. To many in the community, it’s a watering hole, a place of togetherness, with frothy beer and a pool table. It’s a place to meet after work, a place to leave at 1am in a wobbly state. Yet, to others, the pub is clouded by a history of exclusion and segregation which has played out within its walls—a history which continues to shape the present. In current-day Australia, where the forces of gentrification and social change are remoulding our public space, I wonder what new traditions will emerge within the pub. I wonder whether the classic Australian pub will exist in the future, and what forms it might take. Finally, I question how we can make the public house truly public for all members of the community. 

*name has been changed

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