HOBART, Tasmania — Once a dependable bastion of this country’s social life, the ubiquitous Australian pub is now vulnerable to a slew of modern ailments. Many rural, suburban and blue-collar pubs have been inundated with gambling machines — known here as pokies — turning what were vibrant social hubs into blinking, buzzing low-rent casinos that smell of cheap beer and desperation. (To be fair, they always smelled of cheap beer; it was just more charming without the pokies.)
At the same time, urban pubs are being gentrified at an alarming rate: Charcuterie plates replace counter meals of steak and chips, loud music drowns out the boisterous chatter of regulars, spendy craft beers eclipse dependable brews.
These changes are driven by culture and economics, factors that vary widely depending on location and clientele. But the common thread is a need to diversify revenue, as well as the sad truth that cheap drinks and cheap food alone will often no longer support these hulking old buildings and the people who work in them.
The New Sydney Hotel in the Tasmanian capital, Hobart, has found an immensely lovable middle path. Opened in 1835, the building spent a few years as a private residence, and also had a short stint as a brothel around the end of the 19th century. But for most of its history it has been one of the central business district’s most popular pubs.
The last renovation happened a decade ago, leaving the interior with wood-paneled walls covered in various memorabilia: old photos, vintage advertisements, license plates, taxidermied animals (a kookaburra, a raven, a ringtail possum). In the winter, bartenders pull double duty slinging drinks and stoking the leaping flames in the huge brick fireplace.
Alistair Derham, the owner, has been proactive in balancing tradition with the needs of a modern urban clientele. There are no televisions, but there are USB outlets under the bar to charge your phone. There are cheap beers, and there are craft beers. The back bar holds some truly exciting local whiskeys and gins. And in terms of food, the pub classics are all available, done very well with little to no gourmet pretensions.