Picture yourself in a shady beer garden on a blazing Sunday afternoon, safe in the knowledge of no work Monday, surrounded by happy punters whiling away the lazy day with cold pints, scintillatingly bullshit conversation, and maybe a parma or two when the bells chime dinnertime. Paradise? You betcha. Give the average joe a good beer garden and the chances are he’ll be fairly chuffed. My point being: if your establishment lacks said garden, you better be breaking out some major compensations to make up for it.
And so we arrive at The Northcote Social Club. This beer-garden-lacking joint still manages to be one of the finest pubs in Melbourne town. Its answer for a garden is a rather large but still fairly sad balcony dotted with one or two yellowing shrubs; any night of the week you can see it spilling over with smokers, a wayfarer-donning crowd in summer and a black leather jacket-clad rabble come winter. They’re there waiting to see the latest album release party unfolding inside. Or just catching up with friends and neighbours. Or shrieking in disbelief as someone (no-one I know, mind) manages to scale the transparent tarp hugging the balcony and leap from the top to the hard concrete ten feet below, completely fuck his foot, be allowed back in and finally only be kicked out when he unceremoniously falls down the stairs before attempting to molest a bouncer. A dude bouncer.
So why is The Social such a great pub? Well, apart from re-admitting drunken reprobates, it’s all about ambience, innit. The bar staff are affable, the décor is reassuringly old school, and unlike certain other Melbourne establishments, the draught doesn’t taste like soap (and if you order a jug you’ll actually get a bit of change out of your $20). But many Melbourne pubs can boast these spellbinding feats; what sets The Social apart?
The answer is the band room, which is damn near perfect in every way. Housed inside the pub proper (it’s landlocked, like Liechtenstein), it’s a perfectly-sized, dedicated space, soundproofed, dark and dank. It’s large enough to accommodate a good-sized crowd and small enough for said crowd to work up a claustrophobic rock sweat with ease. Upon entrance, it reminds you a bit of your grandmother’s living room, the one that you’re afraid to visit. Garish faded wallpaper and mysterious red carpet meet at the grimy corners of the room. The stage is black and could showcase an acoustic solo artist or a six-piece hard rock band. It’s been the site of so many great gigs: Fanfarlo playing here last year was my pick for best gig of 2010. And let’s not forget The Pixies secret gig back in 2007, their first live performance in Australia. But The Social shows no snobbery: many a green Melbourne band have cut their teeth in this band room. First Time Hookers debuted here, and The Fearless Vampire Killers had their first single launch here.
The beer’s not as cheap as other, less cool places but hey, you get what you get. It’s a place to order cold Carlton, dirty shiraz and bourbon and cokes; if you’re a Cosmopolitan girl or Mojito douchebag then you’d be better off sticking to King Street (and spare a thought for those of us surviving on Vegemite toast the next time you throw away $18 on a poorly-made cocktail). Conversely, the food is fairly pricey so if you’re a derelict student then eat before coming (better to line your stomach anyway). If you are flush then welcome to Melbourne’s Best Parma. Huge call, I know, but whenever I see it being whisked by me on its way to another, better table, I have undeniable food envy. Once my friend ordered it and I nicked a chip when he wasn’t looking.
If I’m sounding sycophantic (and I am), it’s because the place is so frigging rocking (and it is). Don’t get me wrong, it can be shit – but this is more often caused by the patrons (and to that guy who requested that we ‘tone down our language’ because his wife was there, what the hell? You’re an idiot. It’s a bar, not a church. Also, your wife has stupid hair). There’s pool, there’s pinball, there’s the potential of pulling. If you like your indie rock/acoustic/folk/rock ‘n’ roll and underground album launches, give it a whirl. And if you don’t, go for the beer. Just don’t go for the beer garden.