Out of all the residential land release programs in the Top End of the past, say, 20 years, I can only think of one tavern / bistro that has opened for business in a surburban location. Go back to the large scale land release programs in the 10 or so years following Cyclone Tracy of 1974, and you will find a few such places that were located either within or on the edge of surburbia and to this day remain a popular family destination for a great night out that isn’t unrealistically heavy on the hip pocket either. Located on the fringe of Hibiscus Shopping Town, Dollys is one such place.

Dollys comprises a restaurant and tavern as one half of the ‘entertainment complex’, with a traditional bar occupying the other half of the same complex. If you’re visiting with your kids, whatever you do make sure you get the correct entrance otherwise you’ll spend the rest of the evening explaining the birds and bees to some stunned minors. The restaurant forms one half of the tavern, with a large traditional seating area and a pay-at-the-counter-first approach. Take a number back to the table and wait for some of the tastiest meals you’re likely to encounter based on pub cuisine. The other half of the tavern is a fairly formal bar area with a seating area featuring a most eclectic mix of olde worlde armchairs and sofas.

This lounge area is flanked by faux-fireplaces (in the tropics??), mixed wall treatments, closed and semi-closed booth areas, high tables, coffee tables and a sound stage. It seems that each night of the week there is something happening. karaoke nights, trivia nights, open mic nights, cocktail nights… there’s something for everyone (a horrible cliché, I know). With this amount of activity the numerous big screen TV’s seem redundant. While you pay at the meals counter, you’re free to eat in whichever half of the tavern – whatever you’re there for. Oh, and let’s not forget about the obligatory beer garden / outdoor eating / smoking area outside. And so, it happened to be open mic night when I recently visited on my quest for the best steak dinner in Darwin.

I think it’s only fair to say that the menu is loosely based on pub food classics. You recognise them, but there’s a twist. There’s a lot on the menu too, and I would say that is because there are two types of patrons to cater for on any given night – family groups and others wanting a formal eating experience, and those wanting a more informal atmosphere in the lounge area. There’s small and big dishes, a lamb hot pot, chicken and leek pie with salad, fish dishes, pasta dishes, pizzas, steaks, a specials board, and decadent desserts. My order this night was simple: the 300g rump steak special, medium rare, with prawns and a garlic sauce, fries and salad, accompanied by the chocolate brownie dessert containing (at the risk of discussing dessert before mains) two generous portions of the lightest chocolate brownies I have ever tasted, with lashings of hot salted caramel sauce, almond praline, ice cream, cream, and a marinated cherry.

I have visited Dollys a few times before and I have never encountered anything but the most courteous and attentive waitstaff. There seems to be nothing too hard for them to arrange to make the night a carefree experience. The house band opened up for the night as I sat down after ordering, and after a relatively short wait while listening to a great cover of Proud Mary and country renditions of Rebel Yell and I’m on Fire, dinner arrived. The steak itself was cooked perfectly; a nice amount of smokey char on each side with a lovely and soft pink centre. Any fat on the steak was rendered well and there was no gristle to remove or place back on to the plate.

A generous number of prawns were placed on top of the steak and swam in a garlic and herb white sauce – something I wish I could replicate at home next time I have guests over. The prawns were plump and juicy and the salad was a lovely crisp, fresh garden salad made up from the usual suspects – lettuce, tomato, onion, etc. The fries – simply divine. Golden crisp steak cut fries served up piping hot. If there was a negative, the steak hadn’t been rested as long as it could have and there were some juices ponding underneath. A minor inconvenience though.

One thing you notice about the Dollys staff is that, beside their cheerful disposition, no one seems to be locked into one task. There are a handful of staff that alternate between taking orders and serving, and others who will pour drinks while also serving and clearing tables. In this regard, service is excellent. Pricing for the night was more than reasonable, with the rump steak special coming in under the price of a chicken dinner.

Was it the best steak in dinner in Darwin? It’s a very strong contender indeed. Value-wise it’s probably one of the best I’ve had, certainly. I know the let downs are superficial and nothing to really stop me enjoying the meal, but I just can’t get the image of resting juices mixing with the garlic and herb sauce out of my head. Such a shame.

On the other hand – don’t let my petty criticism put you off experiencing Dollys. A place that makes you wonder why we don’t see surburban taverns and bistros like this in new subdivisions anymore.

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