To me, the Robert Burns Hotel was just another one of those pubs on Smith Street that you went past all of the time, never thinking twice of going in there. For one, it’s in the heart of ‘secondsville’… one of the numerous inner-city pockets of Melbourne that consists of wall-to-wall outlet stores (sporting attire is the attraction in this neck of the woods, if you didn’t know).
Subsequently, teems of buses filled with outer-suburbs bogans and weekender provincial folk meander from store to store with a glazed look on their face until they find their bargain of the day – 30% off a three-pack of tube socks that they didn’t really need.
I would have gladly continued to ignore this part of Smith Street (unless I needed discounted tube socks). However good friends of ours whom, up until a few months ago were Collingwood residents, had the low-down on some of the better places in the neighbourhood. As we were well overdue for a catch up, they selected the Robert Burns Hotel as our lunch venue.
Inside, the Robert Burns Hotel is a strange mix of two vastly different countries; a Spanish restaurant inside a pub that bears the name of Scotland’s most favourite son and poet. This is further emphasised by the garish tartan carpet, that in places continues up the wall like it’s trying to escape. It’s cosy and comfortable. As my friends tell me, the venue has recently had a bit of a make over.
As some of us had young children in tow, we were of course unfashionably early (by only a few minutes) and the doors were only being unlocked as we arrived. Our Spanish-accented waiter escorted us to our table and was quick to dispense some water… a great start? Alas, no. The service was awfully slow and haphazard, and that’s an understatement.
To further complicate things (which wasn’t really all that complicated), friends had to leave by 2pm as they had a flight to catch, so they asked if they could order immediately even though we were waiting on a couple of other guests. So, our friend’s drinks orders were taken and duly received, whereas the rest of us were left wondering. Then again, our friend’s food orders were taken and although we were also ready to order, we were again left wondering. There wasn’t even the opportunity to grab the waiter’s attention because as soon as he had taken our friend’s order, he was off again in the blink of an eye without even bothering to see if anyone else at the table was perhaps a little bit thirsty or hungry. We eventually took control of our thirst and decided to order our drinks from the bar.
And it wasn’t as though our initial waiter was the only staff member on the floor. There were others – all easily identifiable as they all wore the same short-sleeved checked shirts, rushing around doing… actually I don’t know what they were doing, other than not waiting on our table. It was hardly busy at ten minutes past midday on a Sunday and there was only one other couple that had taken a table. Although to the staff’s credit, they were at least quite friendly and attentive… when they were present.
As for food, there’s a separate front bar menu that lists a selection of tapas (all $6.50) served in the traditional cazuelita; the terracotta dish synonymous with Spanish morsels. Although I didn’t get to try some of these dishes on offer: Costillas De Cerdo (Pork ribs in a tangy sauce), Albóndigas con sepia (Beef meat balls with cuttlefish and green peas) or Chorizos a la sidra (Slow cooked chorizo in cider with green apples), I would like to come back to sample a couple of dishes over a glass or two of Tempranillo or Fino Sherry… Muy bien! Mi español es muy malo!
The more extensive restaurant menu generously caters for your serious carnivores and although there are a number of dishes for your token vegetarian (there’s always one), I thought there would have been more vegetable dishes on offer. Yes, the main meat dishes are accompanied by a handful of rocket and shallot salad, but this is more of a garnish than a salad and the only other green vegetable on offer as a choice of three side dishes were some char-grilled asparagus spears. The other two dishes were a choice of hand cut fries or chips in another form; roasted chat potatoes – all reasonably priced for a fiver.
Once our orders were finally taken, we tried the Croquetas del mar (mussel and prawn croquettes) – $9.90, an array of the various grilled meats on offer, which at $50 for two people highlighted that the Robert Burns, with all its service foibles, is actually quite reasonably priced.
Our one year old had already eaten her way through a paper napkin and a slice of baguette we’d successfully foraged from the bread board near the kitchen pass (we’d asked for a couple of slices to suppress our daughter’s hunger and keep her occupied, but – no surprises here – they came out around 10 minutes after our food had arrived). In any case, everything came out at once, which was a bit of a pain trying to find enough room on the table accommodate everything we’d all ordered.
The croquettes were moorish; five crunchy cylinders were filled with chunky pieces of prawn and mussel, lightly bound with a smooth, rich roux mixture. The accompanying garlic aioli was nice enough, but it was a bit rich-on-rich, if you know what I mean. I would have preferred a contrasting condiment spiked with something to cut through the richness. My daughter, not content with just paper and bread, knocked off two of them effortlessly. She is, to date, a pleasure to take out for a meal, unlike our four year old, who refused to go because there was no playground attached.
The meat selection consisted of a couple of lamb cutlets, the two forelegs of a cute bunny rabbit, some slices of white sausage (and sadly not the Morcilla blood sausage which was available on the menu in other dishes) and some sliced sirloin. We asked if we could have a sample of each of the sauces on offer; aioli, mojo rojo and chimichurri, which was do-able but not without the waiter telling us he should be able to accommodate this request without the kitchen wanting to kill him (?). I think he was trying to be humorous.
The meats were pretty much grilled to perfection and all well seasoned. The lamb was bang on, still retaining a pink hue on the inside. The rabbit was well coloured on the outside and moist on the inside. The sausage was OK, if not a bit too salty. The sirloin was a little on the tough side, with most of the slices just bordering on medium heading towards medium well; a little over for my liking. The accompanying sauces brought the meats to life with the piquant mojo rojo being declared the winner over the second placed chimichurri. Along with a couple of the aforementioned sides (asparagus and hand cut fries), this was more than enough for two (and a half) people.
Our other friends were more than happy with their choices. The eye fillet ($22) and four-point lamb rack ($27) were cooked accurately to order and was again a fair dose of protein for the price. There are five paella dishes to choose from that vary from $20 to $24 per person (min. 2 people). I would have gladly ordered the Paella negra con aioli (squid ink, with cuttlefish and scallops served with aioli) if there was a like-minded dining partner, but there wasn’t. Although I did get to sample some Paella de marisco (seafood: prawns, calamari, mussels and clams) which was spot on.
This is a pub, so there are plenty of beers on tap – in bottles, pots or pints and although the wine list is fairly extensive (and exclusively Spanish), it’s quite restrictive in its offerings of wines by the glass and is quite pricey.
Desserts are the usual Spanish suspects, including the ubiquitous churros with chocolate sauce ($9.90), a selection of Spanish cheeses that most probably include Manchego and quince paste ($13.90) and a crème caramel ($9.90). Unfortunately we were far too full of meat to consider something sweet… and I’d left the nappies in the car, so it was probably as good a time as any to leave our share of the bill on the table and go and change the baby, via the Nike outlet store for some much-needed tube socks.
So, in weighing everything up about the Robert Burns Hotel, if you are more than prepared to put up with some extremely chaotic service (which upon reading other reviews you can pretty much guarantee), you can look forward to some quite reasonable, affordable and simplistic, yet tasty Spanish fare in a fun and relaxing setting.
Robert Burns Hotel
376 Smith St, Collingwood
(03) 9417 2233
Good For: Reasonable and basic Spanish fare without the flare (and associated cost) of MoVida, Añada, etc.
Not Good For: Knowing that Manuel (Fawlty Towers) has grand children that also ended up in the service industry… albeit in in Melbourne