It’s hard to remember the last time I was at the Harbord Beach Hotel – affectionately known by most as the ‘Hilton’. I mean, I recall what date it was, but the rest of the details are bit of a blur… I’d recently joined the local AFL team, the Manly Warringah Wolves (GO THE WOLVES), and this place was their official den. It had that warm, friendly, fermenting vibe to it, lots of dark, pokey areas to hide and watch sport or sit legs akimbo on stools and say things like “game of two halves” and “we gave 110 per cent.”
Much to the chagrin, we hear, of some of those old regulars, the ‘Hilton’ as it is hazily remembered, is no more. Several who had misspent their youth or pay checks there, and many more who enjoyed it as a happy second home have even asked for squares of the old, soiled carpet, such is its nostalgic pull.
The Hilton owned by John Thorpe and Trish King since 1978 until its sale last year has emerged from lockdown delightfully refreshed. I admit I didn’t harbour high hopes – I’ve seen too many old places with heart and character gentrified, a common blight on the social scene in Perth where I lived for a stint.
I was so pleased, then, when I arrived with my guest to find an interesting, fresh Harbord Beach Hotel, with its own honest style and an ode to boards (surf, skate) that worked. In many ways the venue has simply grown up.
Rather than build over what was there with generic trendy elements, new owners Glenn Piper and Lachlan Cottee have stripped back most of the 1970s, 80s and 90s décor to reveal some beautiful original features – a staircase, wooden beams and stylish arched windows. There’s a place for your surfboard ‘round the side and vintage skateboards signed by the Big Names adorn the wall. Unpretentious floors, plenty of beachy vibe brollies on the exterior and a real touch of 60s style in the bistro, which will soon host the more upmarket restaurant Balsa (launching around the end of Feb we hear). You’re greeted with a woodfired oven on entry, confusing and unwelcome on a hot summer’s day, but translates well in the eve.
We sat on stools by the window. It was a hot day, and we were showered in warm natural light and cool winds. Perhaps thanks to COVID, we had plenty of space around us and I would have happily stayed through the afternoon and evening.
It was a space that felt stylish and unpretentious. An excellent invitation for prawn cocktails (North Queensland tiger prawns, $28), a mocktail (Apertivo Spritz, $11) and a tuna sashimi taco (Tostada raw tuna, avocado, pickled melon, chilli, corn tortilla – excellent value at $15). The prawns were fresh, juicy, sweet meat that would have gone perfectly with a bottle of white had I not been driving. The Tostada was the stand out dish for me. It was the best tuna sashimi I’ve had and I didn’t begrudge all the complex flavours of heat and cream (chilli and avocado) that went with it. They worked well together, which is not an easy dance to pull off. My only tip is to eat it quickly before the base goes soggy.
The prawns weren’t peeled, an unpleasant surprise for those averse, but luckily my guest Wendy was a pro, and had the whole lot ready to dip into the “Marie Rose” cocktail sauce before I’d overordered a bit of everything else from the menu – Zucchini flower and ricotta flatbread (Light and tasty, $18), Vego burger (a good one, $21) chicken schnitty (Great, crunchy, met expectations, $20).
A random friend we made across the way had the potato scallops with wakame vinegar and she said they really hit the mark. It’s the good fried food you want after a big swim or surf but, dare we use the term, elevated. At ten bucks it feels like a fun food trip without taking the piss. I think the die-heard OGs of the Hilton might soon warm to the place, if they haven’t already.
The meal was finished with the one and only dessert on offer – the Harbord Splice. I expect the dessert menu will expand once the restaurant opens by the end of the month but honestly this may be the only one you need. It tastes exactly like the pine-lime and classic Splice you’d normally buy at the milk bar or newsagents after a swim, and at $8 dollars it probably costs close to the same. Except, this one looks nicer, it has shavings of something limey and pretty and it mixes perfectly with the spirit of the hotel. Everything has been well thought through.
Harbord Hotel has pulled off the near-impossible – it’s a fusion of 1960s and 2021 surf and food culture, a recreation of a bygone era without the kitsch. We recommend you get on board.
Harbord Hotel is at just down the road from Freshwater Beach at 29 Moore Road Freshwater.
Open 7am-Late. More information visit harbordhotel.com.au
Transparency check ✓ This is a non-sponsored, genuine review, but the meal was provided free for the purposes of assessment and it was not anonymous.