At one corner of the bar, a group of blokes are huddled together with beers in hand, engrossed in the footy match broadcast from the television screen above. There's a quiet cheer, the clinking of glasses, a high five.
Nearby, a young boy enthusiastically devours a plate of fish and chips while his dad looks on, stealing the occasional mouthful. Behind them, three older women sit among plates of vibrant salads, a bottle of sparkling and an array of oozing cheeses.
The Middle Park Hotel (MPH) is a venue that offers a little something for everyone, especially when it comes to food. Led by Melbourne Pub Group (MPG) group executive chef Stephen Burke, along with chef/director, Paul Wilson and head chef, Darren Mercaldi, MPH's seasonally inspired menu reinstates the traditional counter meal, albeit with a welcoming contemporary twist.
Forget a big, greasy parma or non-descript steak. With a focus on paddock-to-plate eating, the menu – which undergoes a revamp every six weeks – is all about simple preparation and letting quality, organic ingredients speak for themselves.
"Our counter meal menu is really driven by produce," says Burke. "We look at what's available and what's at its peak, then we try to incorporate what's new on the market wherever possible. If you have fantastic produce, then everything else comes easily."
The focus here is on affordable counter meals – taking the formality out of fine dining, while making the same top-quality ingredients accessible for everyday eating. That being said, patrons can currently enjoy fresh and inspired offerings, which include rich steaks, rotating pot pies, scotch eggs done right and pale ale battered fish, served with triple cooked chips and tartare sauce. Sweet tooths will also be glad for the classic additions of butter puddings, treacle tarts and lush trifles.
It’s an offering that spans demographics, generations and sensibilities, like the pub itself. "We get a really broad demographic here, which is great to see. We get young families, old couples and even young hip twenty-somethings," says Burke.
MPH has undergone a dramatic transformation since it was brought under the wings of Wilson, Burke and the team at Melbourne Pub Group. Built in 1819, the venue has undergone many incarnations over the years, being used as a microbrewery, a backpackers and even changing its name to Gunn Island Hotel before MPG recently turned it back to its roots as a traditional family pub, whilst most importantly, reinstating its former name.
With the help of trailblazing architects 6 Degrees, the venue was specifically designed to create a space that was both welcoming and unpretentious, but still rich with the regality and texture of an old British clubhouse – a concept that has helped build its broad appeal. What results is a venue that's almost reminiscent of a father’s den, or the premises of an old-school gentleman's club.
"We wanted to bring back the idea the old sporting club", explains Burke. "Melbournian's love their sport, so we wanted to create a space that they feel comfortable in. We wanted a pub where we [as mad sports fans] would go."
That said, it’s hard to imagine an old sports club with meals this good. Indeed, there are even plans to extend MPH's bar food menu further.
"We're going to have a new charcuterie section of the menu,” he says. “It'll be made in-house, so that means making our own salami and curing our own hams.
“We're also introducing a larger seafood menu – everyone loves fresh prawns, clams, scallops!” he urges. "We're so lucky in Victoria…the depth and variety of produce is just amazing.”
Counter Meals are available at MPH daily.