Grace Mackenzie’s Pub Life: Saving our Soles



Grace, doing what she loves to do.




The pub: the quintessential Aussie establishment. Whether a knock-off pot on a Tuesday afternoon or a dozen pints on a Saturday, the pub has been a long-standing institution for every Australian at some stage in their life.


I hated pubs growing up. My mum and dad were your standard Aussie parents in their early 30s, and so many afternoons were spent down at the Darwin Ski Club chasing my sister around with hermit crabs, collecting cuttlefish bones for my budgie and watching Dad’s “last schooner” seemingly take years to go down.


In the summer we’d make the trip down to my hometown on the Murray River to spend Christmas with my extended family. What ensued was weeks of trips to the local Border Inn to catch up with what seemed to be a never-ending crowd of friends, second cousins, and old teammates at the local footy and netball club. All while my siblings and I sat at the table with packets of Smiths chips and coloured pencils, watching the clock tick slowly by.


When I turned eighteen my life only became more entangled in this world, the first weekend I could I was behind the bar slinging beers to procrastinate studying for my final exams.  Once I graduated, I timed closing shifts with making it into town on time to meet my friends in the nightclub lines. I loved – and still do love – bartending. It was the only job I’d ever had where I could tell a regular to “fuck off” as soon as they came through the door and somehow make them happier to see me. People like you a whole lot more when you’re behind the bar pouring them their favourite beer.


When I moved to Melbourne in 2021, I landed the bartender’s dream gig – I started working at a bar that shut at five every afternoon. Giving me the perfect opportunity to explore the vast selection of options the city had to offer me and create my list of favourites. Which is perfect because at this point in my life I eat, sleep and breathe nightlife. For me, there are three key factors that make a good pub: price, people, and atmosphere. These aren’t black and white rules, and I don’t look for the same characteristics in different venues – diversity is crucial to a good list.


If I’m looking for live music, I’m more inclined to go to pubs than larger venues. Something about intimate, rundown stages and crowds of barely 50 make music sound a little bit sweeter. The band room at The Leadbeater Hotel in Richmond is a great example of this, plus a happy hour pint sweetens the deal. I also love The Retreat Hotel in Brunswick, a very similar intimate vibe and classic pub aesthetic that also comes paired with an unreal beer garden. You’ll be lucky to find a seat out back on a Friday night, but if you can’t I can guarantee a band will be inside waiting for you.


Speaking of beer gardens, I’m always on the hunt for a good one, and probably the best I’ve found in Melbourne has to be The Fitzroy Beer Gardens just off the infamous Smith Street. It’s perfect for a Sunday sesh 365 days of the year, with a roof over your head and more than enough heaters to go around in the winter months. I find myself dreaming about their watermelon margarita jugs or their peaches and cream cocktails fresh off the tap.


Some Melbourne pubs have taken a newer approach with a focus on uni students, and when it works it works really well. Mondays at The Workers in Fitzroy are a smash hit among students in the inner suburbs, and their massive band room provides the perfect divide between those looking to dance and those looking to sit and chat. My personal favourite has to be The (Dirty) Swan Hotel in Richmond. I’m not sure if it’s the pub itself or the people, but I never seem to walk away without a story. I’ll blame it on whatever it is they’re serving there on the courage I get to punch a man in the balls when he’s getting on my nerves, and his good sportsmanship to laugh it off. One time I left and after ten minutes of walking realised the floor was so sticky it had ripped the soles off both my shoes.


It may be controversial, but I’m not always looking for a “good” pub, that being in the sense of what’s new, shiny, with a line wrapped around the corner to get in. Don’t get me wrong – they’re great when you feel like getting dressed up on a Saturday night with your girlfriends and taking the train home at 2am in the freezing cold. But sometimes that’s not what I’m after at all. I want the kind of gritty night out that keeps me coming back for more in hopes of finding lost shoe soles. Some of my best nights out have been spontaneous drop ins to dingy dives for a $5 pot and a game of darts. I’ve played half a dozen games of pool and had conversations with characters about their pet cockatoos and their custom pool sticks at spots like The Burvale Hotel down in Nunawading. Sure, it’s nothing flash, but sometimes you need to trade all the bells and whistles for a good parmi (I will not be debating with anyone on whether it’s parma. My story, my rules).


I also find I look for different things in a pub depending on what city I’m in. For example, I’m visiting my parents up in Darwin at the time of writing this, so I find I look for both tropical atmosphere and nostalgic ties. The Beachfront Hotel in Nightcliff is always a classic with its ocean views, BBQ platters and trivia nights, and whenever I’m back home I ask my dad on the most inconvenient nights if he wants to ride down for a couple games of pool (if you haven’t noticed by now, a pool table’s a big plus for me). If I want to take a walk down memory lane, I go to down the marina to Lola’s Pergola, the outdoor, crazy circus-themed bar I got my start at. I’ll also go to Babylon, which my old bosses also owned, in the heart of the CBD. I could explain to you the vintage décor that scatters the place because it’s a large part on why I love it, but the vast majority would be NSFW.


Regardless of the pub, nothing is more important than the crew behind it. You could have all the bells and whistles but if the guy making my vodka soda behind the bar isn’t in the mood for a chat it’s not likely I’ll be going back. It’s no coincidence that I saw a bartender throw a glass at a customer’s head at my absolute least favourite establishment back home. But if a team loves their job and their regulars it can bring the dirtiest pub to life. I didn’t understand that until I started working for Brick Lane Brewing a year ago, and saw the pride my co-workers had for the job and met the regulars who had become family.


Pubs and I may have got off on the wrong foot. Even now looking back now on those dreaded days of my childhood I realise I overlooked the great parts: club playrooms, lemon squash and moments with my family that I can’t relive no matter how much I want to. As I get older, I don’t think I can see my future where pubs aren’t part of my life. All I can do is make more moments, take more funky photos on my little digital cameras, and rack up a longer list of great pubs I can take my kids to one day.



Read more from Grace HERE



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About Grace Mackenzie

Territory raised Grace Mackenzie is a final year journalism student at Deakin University. Now based in Melbourne, she is an avid follower of Australian politics and is turning towards writing as an outlet rather than debating anyone in earshot. When she’s not writing, she can be found behind the bar slinging beers (or in front drinking them).


  1. A great read. Thanks, Grace.

    My Friday night local, the Stags Head in Williamstown, is definitely one of the last remaining old-school suburban corner pubs still standing. Generally, it is a great atmosphere. Sadly, many pubs in Willy have been lost over the past twenty years or so.



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