30 April 2021

The Institutions: The Old Canberra Inn

| Michelle Rowe

The free-range chicken schnitzel at the Old Canberra Inn. Photo: Michelle Rowe.

When it comes to stalwarts of the Canberra hospitality industry, few could rival The Old Canberra Inn on Mouat Street, Lyneham, which predates the city itself.

Once a stop on the coach run between Queanbeyan and Yass, there’s no mistaking the history in this characterful building, which has alternated between a family home and public house since it was built in 1857.

Old Canberra Inn employee Matt

Old Canberra Inn employee Matt pours a beer at the pub. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

When Ben Johnston, Kalina Koloff and Nick Diver, who own hospitality business Meem Collective, took over the lease in 2014, their strategy was to continue what the inn has long been famous for – providing a warm welcome and nourishing nosh for passers-by.

“Food, music and beer are at the heart of the pub,” says Ben.

“Local leads the theme, and our vision for the venue was to have small independent brewers, hand-made food (including about 500 kg of hand-cut chips a week) and sustainably sourced ingredients like free-range meat and eggs, plus a commitment to good veggo and vegan offerings among the pub classics like steaks and schnittys.”

Ben Johnston

Co-owner of The Old Canberra Inn, Ben Johnston. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

A good, old-fashioned chicken schnitzel is exactly what I’m looking for this Sunday morning after significant overindulgence the night before.

We arrive at The Old Canberra Inn unfashionably early – 20 minutes before the doors are due to open, in fact, and already three groups are mingling outside this unassuming white building, some having staked their claim on the outdoor tables.

The Old Canberra Inn

The Old Canberra Inn – get in early for an outdoor table. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

We choose a perch indoors. It feels like we’ve stepped back in time. Dark wooden floors, wood-panelled walls and bar, well-worn chesterfield sofas, leather armchairs and fireplaces conjure up a bygone era. Historic photos charting the inn’s history, as well as agricultural paraphernalia on the walls and old beer barrels now serving as high tables, add to the atmosphere.

The menu is divided into small plates, house specials, big plates and burgers, as well as sides and kids’ choices.

Steak lunch at the Old Canberra Inn

A perfectly cooked eye fillet hits the spot. Photo: Michelle Rowe.

My free-range chicken schnitzel is the business. There’s a choice of two side dishes, and I’ve chosen the garlic mash (so amazing I’d come back just for that) and a small green salad (to convince myself there is something healthy on the plate).

My husband chooses the 220-gram eye fillet Pinnacle grass-fed steak and asks for it to be cooked medium. When our buzzer goes off, we collect our much-awaited lunch from the server at the back of the pub. The steak is perfectly cooked.

Pity the poor kitchen staff having to hand cut 500 kg of chips a week, but here’s hoping they continue uninterrupted. We haven’t had spuds as good as these for ages. The mac and cheese side will also be a carbaholic’s favourite.

Old Canberra Inn

One of the pub’s old-style nooks and crannies. Photo: Michelle Rowe.

The pub’s bungalow-like exterior belies the labyrinthine space within – a series of rooms and settings offer something for groups of all sizes. In addition to the generous number of outdoor tables at the front, there is further alfresco space to the side and rear of the building.

The trio is currently working with local artist Mick Ashley to paint a new mural in the side beer garden, and hopes to get the pub’s annual craft beer festival up and running again after a short, COVID-induced hiatus.

Meem Collective, which ran the popular Hive Bar in Sydney’s Erskineville before selling it on to the staff, last year opened the eclectic Queenies bar and restaurant in Kingston.

Old Canberra Inn

Chesterfield sofas and wood-panelled walls speak to the lengthy history of the Inn. Photo: Michelle Rowe.

And there’s a brand new venture in the pipeline. The trio recently collected the keys to the former Duck’s Nuts Bar & Grill on Woolley Street, Dickson, an area about to undergo a multi-million-dollar makeover, including upgraded public spaces, improved pedestrian crossings, urban art and landscaping.

“We have always loved this great, sunny corner of Dickson, and when we saw the venue closed during COVID, we approached the owners with an offer to take it on,” says Ben.

“We are also very excited about the plans for Woolley Street the ACT Government is developing with the Dickson Town team and can’t wait to join in the revitalisation.”

With its 18 beer taps, the newly renamed Dickson Taphouse will showcase independent brewers from across the region. “It will be a real beer nerd’s haven. We’ll also have a selection of local wines,” says Ben.

Old Canberra Inn outdoor dining areas

As well as cosy indoor space, the pub offers expansive outdoor dining areas. Photo: Michelle Rowe.

Food will include “smart small dishes that go well with beer, as well as hand-made pasta and a rotating selection of mains using whatever looks good in the market”.

Work is now underway to refresh the space, with Dickson Taphouse due to open at the end of this month.

The Old Canberra Inn at 195 Mouat Street, Lyneham, is open from 12:00 pm to 10:00 pm, Sunday to Thursday, and 12:00 pm to 11:00 pm, Friday and Saturday.

Original Article published by Michelle Rowe on The RiotACT.

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