The Oaks Hotel
With a new chef and a new menu, this North Shore institute gets a high-brow makeover, but at the customer's expense.
The Oaks is an institute in the North Shore. One of the most famous pubs in Sydney, it's a mega-barn, with pokies galore, countless rooms with pool tables and Chesterfield chairs, a huge beer garden and lots of punters. On the plus side for the pub, it has a massive pull north of the bridge. It is (a) the size of a small mansion, (b) caters to the rugby shirt crowd, and (c) isn't pretentious or "small bar-y", so appeals to families, the elderly and Coldplay fans. If you hate the idea of the above three, it's not for you, dear hipster.
So why review The Oaks? It's seemingly always packed, so one imagines the owners wouldn't care if the NRL shirts were replaced with little waistcoats and curly moustaches; and it's in Neutral Bay, so unless it's for after-work drinks or an engagement of a North-side friend, there's not a hope in hell that anyone's making the trek from the east or west to go there for a pint, frankly.
Well, foodies, here's the answer. They've roped in Italian chef Danny Russo (no, not the John Travolta character in Grease), who has added his imprint to The Old Library in Cronulla and The Beresford among others, and ingratiated himself with housewives with a stint on the Lifestyle Food Channel.
The menu is certainly extensive, and high quality. Oysters, wagyu steaks, brioche buns, mussels with mustard mayonnaise, gourmet pizzas and pork belly with cauliflower puree are all dishes that are now (arguably) expected on a high-grade pub menu in Sydney. All the food tasted on the menu is excellent, and pushes past pub grub or the dreaded 'dude food' bracket, to restaurant quality. Of course, with that added herb or frying technique comes added price, and nothing on the menu is inexpensive. There are no $10 steak deals – rump lovers are looking at $28 and upwards, an average of $22 for a burger, and $29 for a plate of mussels (the Congo variety with coconut cream, lemongrass and chilli are specially good).
The Oaks have clearly spent a small fortune on a makeover, hiring architect Paul Kelly (again, to clarify, not the balding singer) to add a cosy but, yes, oaky atmosphere. The first floor and outside areas have remained untouched, but the bistro has been overhauled, so you can see the cuts of meat due to be served onto your plate, in tribute to small delis everywhere, at the 'checkout'. Despite the prices being high, there is no waiting service. Customers pay and collect their grub themselves, with the obligatory pulsating, flashing brick as notification that, yes, you will be fed after a longer-than-expected wait but, no, we won't be bringing the food to you.
There's also a headache-inducing tartan carpet that is mildly nauseating, mostly because there's the expectation that the food will be of Scottish origin. But it's an international affair. The menu is tight and gastro pub-lite, and while it is reminiscent of a dark, woody British enormo-bars, it is haggis free (phew!).
You can't question the food, it's great. But it's no secret that people aren't paying big bucks for fine dining anymore and financial expectations of what folk will pay have been downsized. Now there's a curious situation where pub food is the same price as restaurant fare. The question is, for the price of a main course, do you want to sit in a restaurant or a pub?