Sydney’s Northern Beaches has a bit of a mysterious appeal. While the sandy region has recently been in the spotlight for its Christmas and New Year lockdown, COVID aside, it’s a spot people rarely leave. When it comes to beautiful beaches, sparkly waterways, and a nostalgic surf culture that dates back to the 50s and 60s, maybe it’s not hard to see why.
And now, a timely reno of one of the area’s most beloved watering holes is tapping into exactly that.
After 42 years under one ownership, the almost century-old Harbord Hotel (formerly the Harbord Beach Hotel, or the Harbord Hilton—if you know, you know) has changed hands and undergone a pretty significant refurbishment. With restrictions in the area easing, the California-inspired hotel opened its doors to locals first on Sunday 3 January, with a new restaurant to soon follow.
Despite renovations, keeping the pub’s rich history and close connection with locals was important for new owner and Northern Beaches resident, Glenn Piper. “There was a lot of pressure to get this right because it does mean so much to Freshwater,” he says. “We’ve taken a lot of care and taken a lot of time to make sure we get it right and can represent the area the way it deserves to be.”
Piper, a prominent figure in Sydney real estate, says he entered the pub game because of the venue itself—one he knows intimately as a patron. “I was always attracted to the property and the position that it held within such a great suburb,” he says. “That’s what drew me to hospitality.”
For locals and visitors alike, this hotel has reintroduced itself as the perfect place to spend an entire day relaxing with a drink in hand. In addition to the venue sitting just 200 metres away from Freshwater Beach, its new layout is a visual delight. Collaborating with Sydney designers Alexander & Co (Tilly May’s, Watsons Bay Boutique Hotel), the brief was clear: emphasise the heritage building’s features and match the interior with the hotel’s vintage exterior.
“We took a lot of inspiration from vintage beach culture of around the 60s and 70s,” says Piper. “When we got in here, we uncovered all these tremendous heritage features which had been covered up by patchwork over the years.” Features like breeze blocks, arched windows, a heritage staircase, and natural timber are all exposed and now a prominent part of the hotel’s old-meets-new aesthetic. Make sure to keep an eye out for the specially commissioned mural from local artist, Ash Holmes.
If being a stone’s throw away from the beach wasn’t enough to tell you this venue’s overriding theme is surf culture, then spending a few minutes inside will make it clear. Dust the sand off your feet, hang your board outside on the surfboard rack, and step into the naturally lit main bar, with walls covered in surfing nostalgia and images. Keep your ear to the ground for announcements on live music gigs playing in the bar, which will showcase local talent.
Taking up residency on the pub’s 42 taps are a mix of craft and tried-and-true favourites, with a healthy dosage of surf-inspired beers and, of course, local breweries like 4Pines, Modus, and Nomad.
If you’re after more vitamin D, then head for the sun-bleached outdoor terrace, now with its own bar and buckets of that desirable seaside breeze. From 7am every day, that same courtyard also offers the ideal breakfast spot and is home to a coffee cart. “I know how much the Northern Beaches loves a good brunch or breakfast and a good start to the morning,” says Piper.
Surf culture is also ingrained in the hotel’s cooking methodology, with natural elements of wood, salt, and smoke bringing flavours to life. That’s what you can expect from the soon-to-be-opened Balsa restaurant and cocktail bar with head chef, Adam Rust (12 Micron) taking the lead. The restaurant’s name comes from the balsa wood surfboards introduced by Americans to the Northern Beaches in the mid-1950s. Rust, a Freshie local himself, will be plating up ethically and locally sourced produce and capturing ocean flavours, within smelling distance of the big blue itself. We’re told we can expect Balsa to open later this month.
If you’re here for a more casual meal, those same flavours are found in dishes like the spit-roast chicken, the wood-fired hot sauce accompanying the buttermilk fried chicken, or the smoked cheek bacon served on the spiced prawn flatbread. You can expect a few beachside specials like oysters, raw tuna tostadas, and even potato scallops alongside the usual classics.
Besides the beer, drinks follow the same salt and smoke philosophy, with coastal and volcanic wines and a few riffs on the margarita, dipped in chilli salt smoked in the wood-fire.
Still to come in the renovation is a cafe and boutique accommodation.
"Everyone knows that undeniable Freshwater current—it’s magic, and something that has guided us throughout this process," Piper adds. "Life doesn’t need to be complicated when you’ve got the fundamentals down to a fine art. Good mates, great food, cold beer, cracking tunes, and of course, the ocean."
If somehow you need just one more reason to head north and visit the beautiful suburb of Freshwater—then we reckon Harbord Hotel might be it.
More info and opening hours are here.
Hanging out in the Inner West? Check out the new Enmore Hotel—another pub with plenty of bygone era nostalgia among the beer taps.
Image credit: Harbord Hotel