The Steam Packet Hotel, in history-rich Williamstown, is one of those snug old pubs that immediately feels like your local watering-hole, no matter where you hail from. While its west-side glory is found only about twenty minutes from the Melbourne CBD, the essence of its nineteenth-century charm lends the establishment a comfortable small-town heritage appeal, that does much to make it a popular destination for its many and varied patrons.
The multi-chimneyed mainstay was rebuilt in stone in 1863 after fire destroyed what was previously known as the Ship Inn – Williamstown's first licensed hotel – making the current building just shy of 150 years old. Today, the tradition of westies wetting their whistles at this particular locus lives on, though the last five years have seen a few changes that have brought a decided focus to community, brews and food.
Adroitly sailing the dual streams of history and modernity, The Steam Packet also lays claim to that narrow channel that combines both quality and value. Not belonging to the older pub-grub set, nor taking up the lately ubiquitous gastro-pub posturing, the hotel instead finds a cosy niche somewhere in between, offering a laid-back atmosphere with just the right amount of polish and a menu that provides good, affordable fare without gratuitous frills.
With main meals averaging at around $25, diners can expect such dishes as the oven baked duck breast with pumpkin and potato mash, wild mushrooms and snow peas, topped with fried leeks and jus; herb encrusted lamb rump with sweet potato, rocket and caramelised onion crush, button mushrooms and a drizzle of honey and rosemary jus; and the seafood feast with a selection of grilled prawns, scallops, calamari, beer battered fish and smoked salmon, served with chips, salad and house-made tartare sauce. Daily specials on starters, mains and desserts are listed on the board, while on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights a dedicated menu with various meals under $12 is on offer.
This redirection towards quality, casual dining is a departure from the previous focus of the venue, which was predominantly beverage driven. However, while the vision has broadened to encompass cuisine, it has by no means bypassed the basics of the bar. With a few nice surprises popping up in the featured wine and with eleven beers and ales on tap, no patron of The Packet is likely to be left high and dry.
Tap into something old or something new at the bar.
Scott Meager, who took over the venue in 2007 with a view to refresh the pub's positioning on the local scene, spoke to WeekendNotes about the effect of the changes that were implemented behind the bar. "We have really set the benchmark in the area with our craft beer selection. Back in '07 there wasn't anyone in the area taking on the craft beer arena, now this is becoming the norm," he said, adding that the addition of the rotating guest tap, which supports various products from local Victorian breweries, has now become a drawcard for many customers.
While the mindset behind this stems from the expansion of the venue's appeal to a wider clientele base, it doesn't detract from the fundamental philosophy of The Steam Packet's team, which is based on Mr Meager's "local for the locals" mentality and commitment to the surrounding community. "The better we look after them, the better they look after us," he said. "We have a focus on live sport, and family friendly items such as kids colouring pages and colouring competitions. We sponsor a number of local sporting clubs and provide gifts, generally in the way of vouchers, to local schools, kindergartens and sports groups." The hotel also runs regular events, such as free pub trivia and live music from local bands, which contribute to the friendly, social vibe.
All of this is accomplished with the input of the hotel's staff, described by Mr Meager as his "best achievement". Relaxed yet professional, the crew on board The Steam Packet have assisted in steering the pub in its new direction. "I really have learnt that you must look after them and get them to believe in what you are 'selling', i.e. the concept of the venue, and then they can help you get to where you need and want to be."
This begs the question of what's next on the agenda, now that the old pub has been re-established. Suffice to say that there may be something new launching in the future, and in the meantime at The Packet, it's full steam ahead.