Williams's Hotel offered a one shilling counter lunchIn 1857, newspapers in Melbourne carried advertisements for Gregory’s Tavern and Restaurant at the Hall of Commerce Hotel, announcing the introduction of a counter lunch – “Cold in Summer, Hot in Winter”. The lunch included a glass of best Burton brew or Yorkshire Ale and the charge was one shilling. Over the next year or two, other Melbourne hotels (including Williams’s in Elizabeth Street) began promoting their counter lunch offerings, with a shilling being the going rate. However, the push for custom became more competitive and publicans soon began offering free food with the purchase of a sixpenny, or even threepenny, glass of ale. So began the troubled history of the counter lunch.

Who would have thought that offering a counter lunch could get a pub into trouble? The drinkers got a feed and the publican sold his beer. What could go wrong?

Counter lunch advertising 1858
Kyneton Observer, 1858

The problem was that free counter lunches started sending publicans broke. The idea relied on patrons having a sense of fairness and eating moderately from the food offered, in proportion to what they spent on drink. This turned out to be a naive, if commendable, notion.

Initially, the fare offered tended to be simple. In 1870 one newspaper reported that “The materials of this banquet generally consist of cold meat, sausage rolls, salad, bread, biscuits, and cheese into all of which the disburser of 6d for a glass of stout or ale may go as hard as he pleases.”  However, over the years, pubs vied with each other to attract customers with every more elaborate spreads which, in many cases, could be had by spending a mere threepence on a glass of beer.

By 1902, a publican could be spending around £1000 a year on his luncheon provisions. Even with the £500 subsidy he might receive from a brewery in exchange for exclusively serving their beer, it was hard to make enough from the sale of drinks to show a profit.

What’s more, many were only too willing to abuse the system. While some would be content with a glass of beer and a sandwich, other well-to-do gentlemen who could well afford to dine in style would gorge themselves on the free lunch while sipping a threepenny drink. Observers of the time also told of the down-and-out who would sidle into the bar at the busiest time, pick up an empty glass, pretend to drain it in view of the luncheon counter, then enjoy a feed.

Call to abolish the counter lunch

By 1899, the United Licensed Victuallers Association (ULVA) was calling for the free counter lunch to be abolished. Unfortunately, opinion among Association members was not unanimous. However, around 1912 the cries became more strident, backed by temperance crusaders who saw the counter lunch as an inducement to drink during the day. Others pointed to the lack of hygiene when customers served themselves. “Opium smokers would splutter over food, consumptives would contaminate it, and even a leper might handle it,” one ULVA worthy cautioned.

Queensland and Tasmanian hotel keepers declared against the counter lunch in 1912. In 1918, the free counter lunch was abolished in Victoria. The ULVA enlisted the support of the Brewers’ Association, which threatened to cut off beer supplied to any pubs that didn’t fall into line. In 1919, South Australia followed suit. New South Wales flirted with a ban, but it was not entirely successful. Even in the early 1930s, “counter lunch wars” were still taking place in country towns like Bathurst.

In 1937 a publican in Sydney called the counter lunch a “Frankfurtenstein monster. At that time, the offering might include: “Oysters, (each with a toothpick to lift it off the plate), turkey, sucking pig, brawn, German sausage, cheese, lettuce, onions, bread and butter, meat pies, savories, oyster patties, potatoes boiled in the jacket, pig’s trotters, and cocktail frankfurts”.

Counter lunch Melbourne 1955
Sandwiches – Melbourne 1955

Hotel Australia vs the ULVA

In Victoria, one notable hotel defied the ban. In 1931, Norman Carlyon, the manager of the Hotel Australia, announced that he would be supplying a free counter lunch. It was modest enough – just a hot roast for sandwiches, Welsh rarebit and pies. But the ULVA swiftly made good its threat and arranged for beer supplies to the hotel to be cut off. Carlyon responded by importing Cascade beer from Tasmania. The newspapers followed the tussle avidly in the early days, but seemed to lose interest once the interstate beer began flowing. The eventual outcome went unreported, but it seems likely that the local beer ban was short-lived.

The evolution of the counter lunch

Through all the ups and downs, hotels still provided food – but in dining rooms rather than in the bar. The whole controversy was about serving lunches in public bars which were, of course, a men-only domain. As years went by, in most states, hotel-keepers abandoned the free feeds and began to offer food or snacks at a reasonable cost. But the Association persisted in opposing bar food.  In 1949, it was reported that Melbourne hotels would continue to defy them and serve counter lunches between 12 and 3pm and by 1950 the consensus was that bids to stamp them out had failed. In Queensland the government stepped in, passing a regulation in 1955 forbidding the service of food in any bar or any room with access to a bar. Meanwhile, in Melbourne, a T-bone steak could be had for 2/6d.

It’s not clear when the last vestiges of these bans disappeared. Certainly, by the 1960s, the counter lunch was a firmly established tradition in most states. Then we broadened the definition to include pub meals eaten in the lounge bar. The fare usually ran to basic grills, the roast of the day and offal in various forms: lamb’s fry and bacon, brains and bacon, kidneys on toast.  That great pub classic, the steak sandwich, had been around since the 1920s but only took on the form we know and love with the introduction of sliced bread in the late 1950s.

Counter lunch steak sandwich
Classic white bread steak sandwich. Image courtesy of b-kyu

As Australia became more multicultural (and with the end of six o’clock closing) pub meals rapidly evolved. By the end of the 1970s, the offal was gone. We now have “bar food” as well as counter meals (which are more likely to be eaten at a table than at the bar). There was the nachos craze that hit some time in the 1980s, calamari rings have become a pub classic and there’s usually a pie and fish and chips. But the biggest development was the parmigiana – originally veal (or something that purported to be veal) but now almost always chicken. It’s probably not an Australian invention: a recipe for chicken parmigiana was published in The New York Times in 1962. But Aussies certainly embraced the dish and “Pot and Parma” special offers abound at pubs throughout the suburbs.

The free counter lunch has long gone, along with the devotees of tripe and onions. Gastro pubs have upped the ante (and the prices). But as long as you can get a pot and a parma for $15 the counter meal will remain an Aussie institution.

Counter lunch parma
Nothing beats a good pub parma, right?