Bartender Louis Crellin remembers the first night The Family Hotel in Newcastle West began serving its new vegan-only menu: someone sent their burger back because they thought it was bleeding. It turned out to be beetroot.
Since February, The Family has been rocking burgers, milkshakes, wings and more stereotypical pub staples. This kind of food is to be expected in an old pub with a rich history, but patrons might be surprised at the lack of animal products found in the new kitchen.
"Burger food suits the Family. If you're going to kick anything here it'd be trashy diner food," says Pino's Diner chef and owner Dion May. "I think it's been well received."
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Pino's Diner is an extension of the original Pino's Italian vegan restaurant in Islington. The first owners, Murrie Harris and Knives Baker, left a year ago and Dion May took the reins. Pino's Diner expanded into The Family Hotel's kitchen before the lockdown after May saw a post on Instagram from the Family's owner Steven Forbes.
"Forbesy said that he didn't have a chef and they're not serving food. I said, 'Hey I can whip up a menu and do some vegan burgers', and then within three days I was here," he says.
"I was a bit over cooking just Italian food; I was like, 'I want to eat a burger and do it well'."
On the menu you'll find two types of cheeseburgers, a K(orean)FC burger, the Not So Magic mushroom and The Big D inspired by McDonald's Big Mac (the most expensive item at $25).
Other non-burgers include the cheeseburger spring rolls (everything you find in a cheeseburger put into a spring roll), Buffalo Cauliwings, Mac 'n Cheese poppers and The Don Tots (loaded potato gems). For dessert, Thicc Shakes keep on theme or you try something smaller with the soft serve ice-cream with a sprinkle cone for $6.
Pino's have fooled vegans and non-vegans alike with their menu, although it's not their intention. Vegan is clearly printed on the menu.
"We've had people bring back a burger and say ''I'm actually vegan'," May says.
"Vegans come here and it tastes like what they used to remember a product looked like."
Their imitation meat is from a popular LA-based company, Beyond Meat, made up of legume protein among other ingredients. Pino's have several different house-made sauces and Frank's Red Hot.
They use soy milk as an emulsifier for their vegenaise. They have "Big Mac" sauce with pickle, dill and onion. Then there's their garlic aioli, ranch and jalapeno sauces. Their cheese is made of a soy and seaweed gelling agent called agar.
"Everyone gets the cauliwings. Two burgers and cauliwings always is the standard order," says Rhys Freeburn, who runs the diner. He worked a casual shift at the diner a year ago and never left.
Freeburn says people don't realise how filling the cauliwings can be; they're 300 grams of cauliflower. He jokes the battered wings are probably the healthiest thing on the menu. (They do come with fresh celery and carrots.)
Dion and Freeburn are both vegan, but it's not a requirement of Pino's staff. They're not in the kitchen discussing ethics, they're focused on the food, and it shows. Simple details like the smoky seasoning on the fries, the spicy kick to the wings, the large leaves of lettuce and the fresh strawberry on the milkshake show that it's bigger than fast food and better than a limited diet.
"I've only been vegan for three years; I was vegetarian the year before that," Freeburn says.
"I went vegan because I couldn't answer the question as to why you would eat an animal."
He's found the diet very simple to adopt.
"I came to the conclusion that this is the lifestyle to lead. I don't need to indulge in animal products," he says.
Freeburn's favourite menu item is probably the coconut and almond-based ice-cream.
"You can't get soft serve like that anywhere," he says.
When May first came to Pino's he wasn't vegan nor did he know much about it. He learned more and two years ago gradually made the transition.
His favourite meal is definitely the Pino's Burger: "super simple".
Nick Writer is another chef at Pino's, and he does eat meat.
"I've given him three months to come vegan," May jokes.
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Despite the modern menu and younger demographic, you can still feel The Family's old pub vibes with the 1885 fireplace. It's one of the oldest pubs in town.
Dylan Oakes is another owner, and he's been with The Family Hotel for the past four years. He reckons the clientele has changed slightly since the arrival of Pino's, although it's still typically aged 25 and up.
"We've always had an eclectic group and now with this marriage it seems to be pushing more of those eclectic people. It's a bit more of a mature crowd, with floods of the new-age vegan kids as well," Oakes says.
He believes The Family's points of difference are the fact that it's dog friendly and has no gaming. Oakes just renovated, putting in a COVID-safe cabaret sports bar as an alternative to live music. It comes with a "Newcastle Legends" mural featuring local sports heroes.
Oakes probably orders the Pino's Burger the most, but he's happy to push The Big D.
"When you're pretty hungry The Big D fills that old girl up," he says.
Freeburn also notes that while the younger generation is huge for the vegan movement, they can't come because the pub is 18 and up.
He mentions that, like a lot of other alcohols, not all beers are vegan.
The Family does offer vegan beers including Melbourne Bitter, Reschs, Great Northern, VB and Balter XPA.
"It's crazy people who drink beer and milkshakes," Freeburn says.
Pino's Diner is a unique and tasty experience that is indicative of how the city is shifting while still celebrating its history. Ultimately, though, it's a massive pub feed. Leave room for dessert, if you can.