In Search of Hobart's Best Pub

Today is Summer Solstice in Australia. What better day than today to find a good pub? We weren't interested in a pub crawl or a pub tour ($20pp) or a new pub with no history...or even a pub with lots of people and pokies (poker machines). We were on the hunt for Hobart's oldest, more traditional pubs and the logical place to look was along the waterfront. Some things don't change: sailors like companionship and grog. Being downtown Hobart, with Cups tied up at the Elizabeth Street Pier, has some definite advantages. We can hunt for pubs day and/or night.

With a history that revolves around the sea, Tasmania has no dearth of pubs. Hobart, being its oldest city, currently offers ~40 registered pubs, but that's nothing compared to the early days. Within 20 years of its settlement in 1803, Hobart Town boasted 50 registered pubs for its 10,000 inhabitants and there were, by all accounts, many more pubs of the “unregistered” variety. The pubs that have survived have a rich history. They seem to be clustered around historic Battery Point and Sullivan's Cove, which includes trendy Salamanca Place, so sussing them out was not difficult. We could have gotten some help by consulting Pubs of Tasmania: in Search of the Holy Grail, that evidently provides lot of history, trivia and secrets, but we're way too cheap to do that. Plus part of the fun is finding things out for ourselves.

I came up with six pubs I thought were worthy of our attention. All were originally operating in the mid-1800s and all have some good history behind their walls. We did not have a beer in each, as we were interested in concluding the tour in one day and didn't think we'd be attentive to detail in the last couple of pubs if we'd already drunk three or four pints.

The Customs House Hotel was first on the list. Licensed in 1846, it got its name from its location...yup, right across the street from Hobart's Custom House (now Parliament). We thought it to be pretty non-descript. It's been “gentified” and modernized and in the process, has, perhaps, lost some of its charm.

There is supposedly a tunnel that leads from Parliament to the hotel, but we couldn't find any more information about it. Probably needed to take one of those $20/pp pub tours to get the inside skinny.

We headed to Salamanca Place, an upscale market area with classy boutiques and restaurants and a couple of older pubs. We came across Irish Murphy's first. It's one of the oldest pubs in town and has had several different names. It was considered a pretty rough place as late as the 1950s when Ma Dwyer owned it. It was called Ma's Blues House then because of its crude clientele and its appeal to the criminal element in town. Evidently back alleys provided quick exits when the police showed up.

We took a peek inside. Though housed in an historic Georgian sandstone building, it's a typical Irish-themed pub and restaurant; it has a sister pub in Brisbane by the same name. It appeals to the tourist and younger crowd, I'd say, with evening entertainment and kitschy “authentic” Irish décor.

Knopswood's Retreat, originally known as Whaler's Return, is just a couple of blocks away. It's noted in Lonely Planet as the best pub in Hobart. We're not sure what LP's criteria is, but we certainly wouldn't agree. Once again, it's gentrified and appeals to an upscale after-work/weekend crowd. There's a sign outside: A Friday Night Institution since 1829. The stained glass panels above the bar with scenes of historic Hobart were nice, but the atmosphere was still commercial in our opinion.

The Shipwright Arms aka Shippie's was our idea of a neighborhood pub. First of all, it's actually located in a neighborhood, not in touristy part of town. The sign advertising $9.50 lunches “had us at hello”. We walked in and bellied up to the English-style bar. The barkeep greeted everyone who came in by was like Cheers... except nobody knew our name.

We took a look at the bar menu. Hmm... lamb's brains with mushroom sauce for $13.50. Definitely too expensive for our budget (thank, God). Moving right along to the luncheon specials, I settled on scallop pie and David opted for cajun chicken. We each had a pint of Cascade Pale Ale. We were parched after all of our pub exploring activities. We loved the early maritime photos dotting the walls and the Sydney-Hobart race memorabilia. We especially liked their website notice: No Pokies • No TAB • No Tofu • No Keno • No Pool Table • No Live Music • No Bok Choy

With a lunch and a pint under our belts, we got back on track and headed to the Brunswick Hotel right in the middle of downtown on Liverpool Street. The Brunswick is the second oldest continuously licensed pub in Australia c1827 and boasts “the world’s second largest Chesterfield” (tufted leather couch). We saw the famous Chesterfield, but it was totally occupied and not photographable at the moment... nor all that interesting. We had no inclination to know where the world's largest Chesterfield resided.

New owners describe it as “a really exciting Gastro Pub.” The bar was a traditional style and the décor was “pub-ish”. Its rooms have been renovated and offers backpacker-type rooms as well as more upscale accommodation.

Just a marker notes the location of the Scotch & Thistle Tavern which stood on the corner of Liverpool and Barrack Streets in the 1820's. It was unearthed in 2011 during a construction. We saw the marker on the street and had to do a little digging ourselves to learn more about it.

Last on the list was the Hope and Anchor Hotel, reputed to be Australia's oldest pub and we were really looking forward to visiting it. Built in 1807, just three years after Hobart was settled, it has lots of history, but is, unfortunately, no longer in business and the building is for sale.

At the end of the day, an unanimous vote amongst the crew determined that the Nine of Cups' Best Pub in Hobart Award goes to Shippies … despite the lamb brains.