Ye olde counter lunch

Great Central Hotel c. 1910, Glen Innes NSW

 by Mark Gwynn

In Australian English a counter lunch is a midday meal served in the bar of a hotel or public house; the term derives from the counter at which the meals were originally served. Its purpose is to entice customers to patronise the bar by offering cheap food.

Chicken schnitzel, chips, and salad – a typical counter lunch of more recent times

I have fond childhood memories of going to the local pub on Sundays with the family for a counter lunch. The usual fare was Wiener schnitzel – chicken or veal flattened to nano-thickness, crumbed and fried, and served with salad and chips. Over time my local pub became fancy and started offering lasagne and other pasta dishes.  My experience of the counter lunch in the 1970s and 1980s is a far cry from the counter lunch of the nineteenth century, but the offer of a relatively cheap meal to entice drinkers was based on the same business model. Dad used to linger at the bar sharing a beer with a few mates long after the rest of the family had gone home.

The first evidence for the term is an advertisement in a nineteenth-century newspaper:

Gregory’s Tavern and Restaurant … has commenced a Counter Lunch (cold in Summer, hot in Winter), of a character not hitherto attempted. (Melbourne Argus, 23 February 1857)

Most of the nineteenth-century evidence is from advertisements in Victorian newspapers, and the usual selling point was a meal with a drink included. The following is a typical example: ‘Counter lunch as usual. Chop, steak, kidney, fish, sausage, with potatoes, and glass of Bass’s No. 3, 1s[hilling]’ (Melbourne Argus, 14 December 1859). Some hotels offered free counter lunches: ‘Host Morton is always at his post, and supplies an excellent glass of beer for twopence, and counter lunch gratis at 12 o’clock’ (Gawler Bunyip, 11 January 1878). The promotional aspect of the counter lunch is made clear here:

When biz. is dull he posts his groom in front of the bar door and gives him a sandwich to munch. This usually has the desired effect, for, thinking there is a counter lunch on, many are induced to enter the pub for a beer and a feed. They get the beer alright, but devil a sandwich. (Windsor and Richmond Gazette, 3 December 1898)

In the early twentieth century the counter lunch (often served buffet-style) was criticised for poor food hygiene and for encouraging drunkenness, theft, and hooliganism. There were calls to ban it: ‘The matter of free counter lunches was referred to the report of the executive of the licensed Victuallers’ Association. …The report expressed the hope that the system would eventually die out’ (Sydney Globe, 31 May 1913). In the period between the wars the popularity of the counter lunch declined, and in many places disappeared altogether. However the 1950s saw its re-emergence, sometimes with differences that reflected post-war cultural changes:

The six o’clock swill at the Hotel London in Melbourne, 1953. Image source: Lawrie Richards Collection, Museum Victoria

‘Sydney hotel bars are now giving customers fancy counter lunch meals at low prices, and films, while they drink’ (Townsville Daily Bulletin, 7 June 1954).

The end of a regime of early closing hours  also brought changes to the counter lunch. From the First World War hotels and pubs were required by law to close by 6pm, in an attempt to curb drunkenness and improve family life. Inadvertently this encouraged the six o’clock swill – heavy drinking between the end of the work day and 6pm, with a rush to buy last-minute drinks. This legislation was rescinded in all States by 1967, and eating habits at pubs and hotels changed accordingly. Pub meals didn’t have to be eaten early, and counter teas (first recorded 1928, with ‘tea’ in the sense of an evening meal) became more popular: ‘The customary ‘six o’clock swill’ disappeared and there were only a few early orders for ‘counter teas’’ (Melbourne Age, 29 September 1967). But these meals faced growing competition. Many hotels, pubs, and clubs offered a range of alternatives – such as restaurants, Asian bistros, and buffet dining – and in the last thirty years there has been a rapid increase in the patronage of restaurants, cafes and other dining venues.

But is the cheap pub meal about to make a comeback? This writer, while sketching its decline, thinks so:

Long before steaks came with a title and an address, the nation’s pubs served T-bones with chips and a wilted salad at highly reasonable prices. A counter tea, as a pub dinner was called, was the staple for many Australians in the 1960s and 70s. Then pub chefs began stuffing chicken breasts with camembert and the demise of the counter tea was assured. The downfall of the counter meal was helped along by the increased wealth and aspirations of traditional pubgoers, tradies and their families. Your plumber is now more likely to go to Rockpool Bar and Grill than his local. But the cheap pub meal is back with a vengeance and cheaper than ever. (West Australian, 12 January 2013)