Some call it The Espy of the North but it’s unfair to position The Retreat below the mighty Esplanade Hotel in St Kilda, or even compare the two. The Retreat has its own sense of greatness and a long history of watering punters since Miss Amelia Shaw first opened the doors in 1842*. I’ve been going to The Retreat off and on for about nine years now and, even so, I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with this Brunswick institution.
Now, I wouldn’t say I’m a hardcore regular at The Retreat and I’m not on a first name basis with the staff but I do consider it to be one of my locals. One of many locals I frequent in Brunswick, including The Sporting Club and Bridie O’Reilly’s for the $10 lunch specials (the beef and Guinness stew is excellent). When I do go to The Retreat, I always sit in the front bar, tucked up on a high stool opposite the beer taps and I’m not comfortable sitting anywhere else in the building.
The front bar of any pub is the heart soul of the building, the no bullshit first point of contact that rejects pretentious menus; settling for the good old fashioned pub fare of beer and urine soaked peanuts. I am not a fan of beer gardens because I go to the pub to soak up the ambience of real, old school pub culture and the front bar fulfills this quasi-religious need. There is something wonderful about being in a front bar at 3pm with a good mate, three pints down, euphoric and unaware of all the bad shit transpiring in the disappointment of reality.
The front bar at The Retreat is a thing of wonder. Of all the pubs I’ve dragged my drink-soaked body through, this front bar has the most hectic décor I’ve ever seen. It incorporates a mélange of themes from Rock-a-Billy to that particularly Melbourne sense of ironic retro kitsch. Anybody who’s lived in the inner suburbs of Melbourne knows what I mean by this; doilies on the wall, op shop paintings of horses, sagging brown couches and one of those nodding Chinese cats near the cash register.
The Retreat’s front bar is a shrine to eclecticism, a museum of stubbie holders and slogans, band posters and other random paraphernalia. The carpet is drenched with the footprints of a million punters in a thousand different states of mind. It’s like somebody has collected all their experiences of life and thrown them into one room and then fired a few rounds of hedonistic wear and tear into the rapidly fading wallpaper. Sometimes we find comfort in chaos. The moment I walked in there, years ago, my heart told me I was home. If you haven’t been, drop everything and go now.
So, while I’m at home with the physical ambience of The Retreat I do have problems with some of the attitudes it embraces. In a nut shell, The Retreat reminds me of a mate of mine from school who only listened to obscure bands because they were obscure bands and he thought that made him cool. Some of you may remember a subculture in the early nineties that was obsessed with rejecting anything that they called ‘mainstream’. To those people, being mainstream was all about liking blockbuster films, listening to top 40 music, wearing high street fashions and loving the sitcom Friends. Instead, they embraced more indie music, converse trainers, acid, pills, smack and the films of Hal Hartley. The Retreat seems to embody much of this counter culture ethos yet still charges $18.40 for a jug of Carlton Draught.
I can’t be too judgmental about this ethos because I was a bit like that myself. I was at a subcultures book launch a couple of years ago and the keynote speaker was John Safran and he talked about subcultures and how those involved in a subculture are obsessed with authenticity. Safran then went onto say that as you get older this desire for subcultural authenticity diminishes as you become more confident in your own identity and you begin to reject much of the subcultural accoutrements you once held so dear. The Retreat has never grown up even though its prices have, and when I’m in the front bar I feel like I’ve been transported back in time to an era of more hair, rancid leather jackets and the smell of mid-morning bongs in a share-house in Collingwood.
As you can see, I’m rather torn when it comes to my relationship with The Retreat because while the pretentious factor bothers me I still like going there but never after 7pm. And that’s the next thing, The Retreat undergoes a massive transformation after 7pm. Up until that point, it’s local people just enjoying their beverage of choice but after 7pm the building is invaded by suburbia, particularly from Thursday to Saturday. By around 10pm, you have to queue to get in and after the bands finish the dining room turns into a sordid denizen of mainstream music and classic songs that everyone can dance to. I was once subjected to a medley of ABBA songs. Basically, The Retreat’s counter cultural soul is sucked out of the building not to return until it re-opens at noon the next day.
Some people may argue with the above and say, “Callum, you’re just a pretentious old fucker who hates the kids”. This is not true and if you don’t believe me spend an afternoon and evening there and see for yourself. The Retreat has two distinct personalities that are completely at odds with each other. It’s an anti-mainstream pub that only welcomes the mainstream after dark. Again, this reminds me of my mate who loved obscure music because years later I found out that he secretly listened to Boyz II Men under the covers of his bed on an old tape recorder. His sister told me this in confidence.
So, behind every subcultural aficionado there beats the heart of a minor mainstream devotee. I don’t care what people like unless they’re trying to foist it upon me and then I will react with extreme prejudice. But what I do care about is an extended happy hour, which The Retreat doesn’t seem to have. I was walking past the Brunswick Hotel the other day and they were doing jugs of Boags for $10 all day but it’s the Brunswick Hotel and all the value in the world won’t drag me in there. I suppose this is the trade-off (to be explained in next month’s blog).
As long as I live in Melbourne, I’ll always go to The Retreat because I genuinely like it and Sydney Road, Brunswick wouldn’t be the same without it. However, I will always regard it as my pretentious friend who swears by indie music but furtively listens to Boyz II Men under the covers and, for some reason, this makes everything okay because it balances things out.
* When the pub first opened in 1842 it was called The Retreat Inn but was rebuilt in 1892 and then became The Retreat Hotel.