Brunswick’s Railway Hotel has long been a North Side institution. And the nearly 140-year-old, three-storey pub on Albert Street has quite the history. It served as a morgue and an inn – among other things – during its long life.
More recently, and memorably, it was a pub. But the good times stopped rolling in 2016 when it closed following a drug bust. The towering pub fell into disrepair – but then came the Melbourne hotel collective Riverland Group (The Boatbuilders Yard, Riverland, Pilgrim, the General Assembly, Bang Bang at the Rifle Club to save it.
There were some unusual discoveries during the renovation, including a secret staircase, a “Harry Potter room” and a shower that’s not what it looks. (Read all about them here.) But now, after almost six years, it’s been gloriously resurrected as Hotel Railway, a 965-person mega-pub.
The overhaul is major. Every sprawling floor had been ransacked, supposedly by people looking for remnants of the building’s past. So it took years of work to replace the graffiti, damaged floors and shattered windows with crisp, textured white walls, polished wooden floors and terracotta accents.
Despite the new look, Riverland Group co-owner Richie Ludbrook doesn’t want to abandon the pub’s roots. We still feel inhabited. “There’s a lot going on here,” he says. “But the idea is to give the place a facelift, with multiple spaces and catering options. It’s a shame when someone walks in and changes a pub to the point where it’s pretentious or forgets what it is, so that’s something we kept in mind when rebuilding.
Entering the public bar through a Victorian-era hallway, you’ll find sleek wooden furnishings and several communal seating areas flooded with natural light. The centerpiece is an impressive 17-meter brick bar. The drinks list is just as long; there are 12 beers on tap, including Balter XPA, Brick Lane pale ale, Pirate Life acai sour and, for old school regulars, Carlton Draft. Rounding out the offering are numerous bottles and cans of Bodriggy, 4 Pines and Mountain Goat, as well as VB longnecks.
As for cocktails, the list covers the classics as well as a few specialties using homemade ferments and syrups: a macadamia-infused Espresso Martini and a ready-to-drink Beetroot Negroni. Vermouth is another focus – there are over 30 Australian-made options.
The first of two food menus focuses on classic pub grub; think Wagyu cheeseburgers with fries, chicken cutlets with coleslaw, Porterhouse steaks and a handful of pizzas.
Upon entering the spacious dining room, there is a second, slightly fancier Eastern Mediterranean menu. “A pub should be a pub, and I firmly believe that,” says Ludbrook. “But it’s great to have somewhere you can take Mom on her birthday, go on a date or try something that reflects the community she serves – Brunswick has a large Mediterranean population, it’s so good to make a menu that recognizes that.”
Start with small pieces like fried cauliflower bites with harissa; barramundi crudo with marinated carrots and pepperoncini; and lamb merguez sausages with relish baba ganoush and imam bayaldi (stuffed eggplant). Dishes are cooked on a charcoal grill. Swordfish cutlet with orange chermoula; celeriac shawarma with pita, pickles and hummus; and the 400 gram hanger steak with fermented green chili are outstanding.
In the beer garden, style is adjacent to the menu. European terracotta tiles line the sunny floors and walls, with greenery strewn throughout. An elevated area is built on the foundations of an old townhouse nearby – with the fireplace and part of the brick wall still intact (the remaining bricks were used to line the bar).
There’s also a relaxed corner bar open late into the night – behind the pub’s preserved historic facade – which is licensed until 3am, with dark wooden furniture and vinyl-only DJs.
So far it’s only at street level, but Ludbrook says a few options are on the table for the rest of the building. “The second floor could be ideal for private functions, as well as a music room,” he says. “Then another floor up, we’re thinking about cheap coworking spaces for local creatives – we want it to be a community hub as much as a pub.”
Hotel Railway opens on Friday 11 March.
291 Albert Street, Brunswick
Wed and Thurs 4 p.m. to late
Fri & Sat 12pm–3am
Sunday 12 p.m.-1 a.m.