While my colleagues Kirsten Lawson and Natasha Shan gallivant about town reviewing top-end restaurants such as Aubergine and Inka, it's my plan, for the next few turns at least, to spend some time in more casual establishments looking for a good feed.
There's a difference between a good feed and a dish you might find in fancier restaurants. There's usually nothing delicate about it; sometimes the meal completely fills, even overflows, the plate. It's hearty food, familiar, and filling.
I grew up in country NSW and a good pub feed was always a treat. It was probably something you could cook at home, like a schnitzel or a Sunday roast complete with excellent crispy spuds and proper gravy like Nan used to make.
Canberra's a little bereft of proper pubs. You know the ones, usually on a corner, with a ladies lounge and a sports bar and a couple of old blokes perched at the bar arguing over whether Bob Fulton was a better player than Tom Raudonikis. I miss them so.
But we do have plenty of places which "identify" as pubs. The Old Canberra Inn (is this as close to a real pub as we get?), The Duxton, Assembly, The Dock, Walt and Burley, Casey Jones, Public, Edgar's, Fenway Public House in Woden and the new kid on the block, the Dickson Taphouse to name a few. Yes, there are plenty of other venues which likely fit the definition too, but I'm on the lookout for ones where you would go for the food, not just a punt and a quick schooie of Carlton Draught.
So first up I hit The Duxton in O'Connor because it also fits some vision of a good pub being a local pub. For many years it was my local, we celebrated birthdays and events there, caught up with friends on warm summer afternoons for an early meal, or indeed once with a girlfriend who lived around the corner, we did slip in for a late night punt and a cleansing schooie on the way home from the city.
I remember when it was refurbished in 2016, the green tiles and red bricks a nod to the original O'Connor homes. Hell, I've been going there for so long I can even remember when it was All Bar Nun. (And, if I'm honest, I can remember when it was that smashing Vietnamese restaurant back in the 1980s.)
But time and circumstance has meant it's been quite a while since I've been to The Duxton. To her credit the old girl still looks good. It's a Monday night mind you, and while there are a few full tables and some people perched at the window, there's always been a sense of space here. I do love that high table that runs down the middle of the main room in front of the bar.
The menu offers the traditional pub classics - pizzas, burgers, schnitzels and the like. While I'm happy to let my dining companions take their pick, it's one of my aims in this quest to find something a little left of centre.
Here at The Duxton, there's a list dubbed "Eats", where something special might lurk. There's a whole barbecue snapper to share, and a wood-roasted porchetta served with Dutch carrots, broccolini seeded mustard jus and apple sauce.
I go for the rotisserie free-range chicken ($28), served with a chopped salad, puffed seeds and a slow-cooked egg. It's one of the best meals I've had in a long time. The chook is from the Elgin Valley Farm in the foothills of Queensland's Glasshouse mountains, a family run business who obviously care about their feathered friends because it's delicious. It's a half-crown, just the breast and wing, the serve enough for one, which is clever. The breast meat is tender, the skin is darkly caramelised and crispy. There are different leaves in the salad, tomato, cucumber, some thin ribbons of zucchini, and delicate slices of radish for some bite. The slow-cooked egg is runny, providing that delicious dressing only an egg can. The whole thing is sprinkled with toasted pumpkin seeds. It's a simple meal but one done with care. Quite the surprise.
The traditional meals don't fare so well.
The tandoor bird pizza ($24) is nice enough. The base is thin and crispy with a good level of rise around the edges. The topping is plentiful and there's a kick without it being too spicy.
The Duxton Classic Cheeseburger is something the boy orders every time we're there. He has since he was about 10. It's a good burger. A generous patty, the house bacon, soft buns that withstand the handheld eating process. It's served with fries, and fries are something The Duxton has always done well. When the kids were little and the week had been long we'd stop by on a Friday after school and order a bowl for us to share (while mum had a sneaky wine at 4pm).
The fish and chips ($24) are disappointing. While the two fillets are a generous size, the batter is stodgy and dense, smothering the delicate fish within. It's served with fries and housemade tartare and crushed peas which both look like they have just been dolloped on the plate with no sense of presentation. Crushed peas can be good, minty and salty, but these are neither.
Dessert however is a triumph. The warm chocolate pudding ($16) is served in a little cast iron skillet with a scoop of house-made milk ice cream. The serves are big enough for the four of us to share two. The pudding full of gooey chocolatey goodness in the middle, the top a little biscuity. Milk ice cream is delicious - just the flavour of milk without any complications.
The drinks here are good too. A good mix of local and Australian wines, a few internationals. There's plenty of beer on tap and a fun cocktail list.
After all this time, we're back for the boy's birthday. We celebrated his sister's christening at All Bar Nun all those years ago, so it seems only fitting he orders his first (legal) beer here on his 18th birthday.
While a good pub will be a place where you'll hold on to such memories, if there's something I've learned tonight it's that doing, or ordering at least, something unfamiliar can lead to delicious surprises.
Address: Cnr of Sargood and Macpherson Streets, O'Connnor
Hours: Monday-Tuesday, 3pm-late; Wednesday-Sunday, noon-late
Owners: David Quinn, co-owner
Chef: Matthew Ouwerkerk
Vegetarian: A few options
Noise: Depends on the night; we all noticed the music did get turned up on a Monday even.