So what's the deal with Marrickville? There's black skinny jeans everywhere as hipsters migrate to the area due to cheap rents. There's high-quality cafes such as Double Roasters, Cornersmith and West Juliette sprinkled through the industrial and suburban 'burb, and the odd warehouse party, but damn if it isn't quiet on most nights. As Enmore Road livens up, the stretch of Victoria Road leading to Marrickville has been a desolate journey for those wanting a local brew without having to stare at a giant screen or pokies in a dingy pub.
But in the last few months, there's been a turnaround. The Vic on the Park hotel reopened with a graffiti and Sunday hip-hop makeover, and a new, expensive looking mega-bar called Ritz has just opened on the Vietnamese food strip, Illawarra Road. But tucked away on a corner further up the same road is the Henson, which feels like those great hidden local pubs that Melbourne does so well.
The former Henson Park Hotel was, frankly, a dive, and was left to fester as a black hole for pokie players. Ray Reilly, who also owns the Trinity in Surry Hills, bought the hotel last year, gutted the rear of the venue and invited Reuben Hills chef Megan McCulloch to create a colourful pub grub menu. Finally, Marrickville has a nightlife.
The Henson is still pretty sedate. It's a family venue, with a child-friendly policy, evident in the playhouse in the beer garden. The front bar has been kept in its previous incarnation to presumably suit the old blokes, but the pokies have been evicted and replaced with pinball machines. The back bar has gotten a smart makeover, with tiled walls and communal tables, while not straying too far from the local vibe.
But the menu is the drawcard for those from outside the area. McCulloch has fashioned a quirky, diverse spread of cuisines, from burgers to a beef brisket 'knuckle' sandwich ($16), a Malaysian-style kim chee goreng with pork belly and fried egg ($24), and a very homey and wintery duck shepard's pie ($23).
The smoked corn soup ($11) is welcoming on a cold night — a surprisingly great puree of celery and habernero peppers with taco bread. The kitchen closes at a pretty suburban 9pm but also opens for breakfast at 8am on the weekends.
The best thing about the Henson is that it's a pub that's reopened its doors without a novelty theme. No faux New York stylings, no '50s Americana throwbacks, and, thank God, no Mexican paraphernalia in sight. Just Marrickville flavour.