When new owners took over Annandale’s Empire Hotel back in 2012, the pub had been plotting a steady downhill course for some time. But they knew that, with a bit of love, it had plenty of potential.
Their plan wasn’t to fix the problems with beer - or even become a craft beer destination - but simply to give the big old venue a spruce up, adding a smattering of class across the board and keeping the focus on traditional pub offerings. And when you walk into the main bar, that’s exactly the impression you get. It’s warm and a little dark, but always comfortable and clean. There are TVs showing sports and a half dozen beer taps, mixing classic big brands with entry level craft beers. Here you can wine, dine, chat and just have a really good time. But when you head through the doors to the lounge, the Empire slips out of its casual clothes and into a ball gown.
The lounge bar is something of a throwback to a style of the days of the British Empire; ornate seating, marble tabletops, vibrant colours, decorative wallpaper and thoughtful flourishes - lamps, vases, lights and candlesticks - precisely where they’re needed. With one portion of the wall decorated with wine bottles, it does feel more classy wine bar than pub. Until you get to the bar, that is.
Here, 10 taps pour a very hugely diverse range of local brews; every style you’d want then styles between styles. There are no tap contracts and many beers are one keg only, ensuring the rotation is steady. Although they have had the odd international guest tap, the focus is firmly on Australian beer, with the more local the better and in the area around Parramatta Road there are plenty of brewers to choose from; on any given day you’ll find the likes of Wayward, Shenanigans, Akasha and plenty more. For those seeking their apple a day, there's a dedicated tap which showcases different craft ciders.
They do plenty to encourage drinkers to move away from big brands towards local offerings too; cheap schooners of entry-level craft, tasting paddles for the curious, a Saturday afternoon Beer Club where you can meet the brewers and Brewer’s Table dinners where the food is made to match the beer.
The food has been a surprise hit, hitting a sweet spot with locals and far exceeding the expectations of the owners. With a mix of pub classics and a bistro menu that’s comprehensive without trying to be too fancy, they’ve built a family-friendly reputation that’s cemented the venue’s popularity in the area. In fact, so in demand is the lounge that they had to restrict private bookings to once a month so locals still had room to enjoy a drink in the weekend.
If you do find yourself having to perch elsewhere, there’s the library room which is very different to the other areas; a lighter, brighter space on the other side of the main bar which gives the impression you’re really just relaxing off the kitchen at someone’s home. And that seems to be the essence of the Empire Hotel. It’s a pub, but it’s beautiful. It’s got pomp, but no fuss. It’s everything you expect, but better.