In 2013, on a rainy and dark morning in Paris, I arrived at a youth hostel. I handed over my passport to check in, tired and grumpy from the 30+ hours of travelling. The French man behind the desk read the passport and exclaimed excitedly: “Ah Canberra… Mooseheads!”
Such is the legend of ‘The Moose’.
There are two levels to the Mooseheads empire: ‘Upstairs Mooseheads’, which has two levels of nightclub, and ‘Downstairs Mooseheads’, which features two levels of a pub-style environment, complete with pool tables and screens showing live sports. The two areas have a completely different vibe to one another, they almost feel like separate venues.
Despite this, every Saturday night the place is packed to the point of not being able to move from one end of the dance floor to the other. People are jammed in like sardines, drunkenly trying to move through the masses of people belting out The Horses by Daryl Braithwaite.
There’s often a long line to get into Downstairs Mooseheads in the early hours of Sunday morning. It’s the place of choice for many people to finish their Saturday night, a place to dance and a place to go when everywhere else has turned the lights on and started mopping the floors.
Mooseheads is open until 5am, so it’s not uncommon for the dance floor to still be packed at 4am, with no sign of the night ending anytime soon. At some point in their lives, every Canberran has heard the phrase “loose at the Moose”.
The question is: how can a place that is so widely renowned as the home of the ‘drunken mistake’ simultaneously be at the heart of Canberra’s best (and latest) night out? Mooseheads owner and manager Tadija ‘Tad’ Miladinovic told me that he is aware of the negative stigma, but he thinks that it is “baseless”.
“Realistically, we are probably one of the safest clubs in the city. You’re much safer being within Mooseheads walls than you are in the street.”
Miladinovic says that there is a problem with “skewed” data and statistics, in that if there is a violent encounter or assault in the streets surrounding Mooseheads, it is always blamed on the venue.
“If something happens in the alleyway it gets attributed to Mooseheads even if they’ve never set foot in here.”
My evening at Downstairs Mooseheads, or ‘DSM’, as it’s affectionately known, started at around 8:30pm on a Saturday night. The first thing that I noticed was the cleanliness. For a “dirty and dingy dive bar” it is almost spotless. The staff were busy wiping down every surface and mopping the floors in preparation for the evening.
Even at 8:30pm, I could see a cross-section of society already well ensconced. There were a few older men enjoying some schooners and the cricket on a huge projector screen. A young couple was playing pool.
Three young men, probably already more than a few beers deep, were dancing enthusiastically, wildly flailing their limbs, while an older couple enjoyed a quiet drink in the corner. When I entered, there was no line, but the bouncers were already set up to tackle the inevitable lines of people later in the evening.
I took a seat in a booth near the window and couldn’t help but notice I was one of only three women in the bar. The older men watching the TV were swearing, talking to each other in disbelief about the game of cricket that was showing. At this point, Moose was definitely feeling like a dark and dingy sports bar.
As the minutes ticked by, people began to trickle in, and more and more staff members arrived in preparation for the long and busy night ahead. The bartenders were busy making drinks, singing and dancing to Drake as they did so.
The music got louder sometime between when I arrived and 9:30pm, and was now thudding, blasting a huge range of music out into the street. People were walking past and dancing as soon as they heard the music as they continued on into the city.
The music played in DSM always encompasses a wide range of genres, catering to all tastes. It’s rare for a night out at Moose to be without the latest hits, but also the classic pub tunes. Khe Sanh by Cold Chisel is a crowd favourite every time.
The three men dancing were getting their groove on to anything from Mariah Carey’s We Belong Together to Gangster’s Paradise by Coolio. Everyone who came in the door was immediately dancing their way to the bar.
At around 10pm, Moose experienced an onslaught of hen’s nights. All of a sudden, a group of about 15 women came through the doors, every single one of them in a Harry Potter-themed costume.
The bartenders were very appreciative of this and joked around with the party while they prepared their drinks. The woman dressed as Dobby the house elf was a crowd favourite. Dressed in a pillowcase and fake ears, she was clearly very committed to the cause.
Another hen’s night streamed in – more tamely dressed, unfortunately – complete with bride, bridesmaid, maid of honour and mother of the bride sashes. These two groups helped to bring up the vibe, and their energy seemed to be infectious. As soon as they hit the dance floor, the entire bar seemed to be transformed, and more and more people began to join them.
At around 10:30pm, the vibe was starting to feel significantly more like a night at The Moose. The dance floor was filling up as groups of students and young people converged on the bar in large numbers.
A group of girls joined the end of my table, chatting and laughing, dancing in their chairs. One of the girls was begging everyone to do tequila shots. No one indulged her in this, so she headed off to the bar to take shots by herself, coming back with a round of drinks for everyone.
Outside, a line, of sorts, was starting to form. The bouncers were diligently checking IDs and monitoring behaviour.
A group of young men, all in plaid shirts and sporting varying degrees of the ‘man bun’ were sent to the back of the line by an angry bouncer, for trying to cut the line. As soon as they were let in, they took the table next to mine.
Still outside, a group of police officers stopped two men on their way past Mooseheads. One of the men became aggressive and began yelling at a female police officer. The officers moved the situation away from the entrance while telling the men to “shut up”.
It was at this point that I noticed the large security presence. There were three bouncers outside at the entrance to downstairs, and a further three at the entrance to upstairs.
There were more security inside, roving around and closely monitoring the patrons’ behaviour. Miladinovic says that they take safety and security very seriously at Mooseheads, as the safety of their customers is the most important thing.
“On a Saturday night, we have upwards of 15 security guards on [duty], looking after the place. So it’s definitely one of safest places in Canberra to be, to party and what not.”
As the night progressed, I began to notice a smell that wasn’t there when I arrived. It was almost musty, like the sheer amount of bodies inside were contributing to it.
I also noticed that the once spotless floor was now sticky from drink spillages due to over-zealous dance moves with a vodka raspberry in both hands. The bar staff moved through the crowds, trying in vain to mop up the spills, dodging arms and legs and head banging.
The lower level of DSM was starting to fill up with the Harry Potter hen’s night taking over the level, and the bartenders at the second bar downstairs were under the pump.
I asked two guys, best friends James and James, both 19, what they like about Mooseheads, and why they go there. They said that they go because it’s fun, and they play good music. They also said that they go for the cheap drinks between 10pm and midnight.
I asked them if they think that Mooseheads is ‘gross’, and if it deserves it’s reputation. One James said that he somewhat agrees
“On a certain level it’s a little bit gross. But it’s really fun here and I think that people appreciate that.”
Miladinovic says that this is how Moose likes to operate. He calls it “the people’s club”. Of the music and the vibe, he says: “Downstairs especially, we operate for the people. We give the people what they want. That’s what we do, we give ‘em what they want.”
This was especially evident when Khe Sanh started to play and a group of guys from ADFA (the Australian Defence Force Academy), formed a circle and started belting out the words at the top of their lungs. The group of the girls that they were with – the girls sitting next to me – were laughing and cringing: “They’re so embarrassing!”
This kind of activity categorised the rest of my night at DSM. People were loudly singing, wildly dancing, and thoroughly enjoying themselves.
In my time in the window booth, I didn’t witness any of the typical behaviours associated with Moose. There were, as always, a couple of ‘creepy’ guys, who joined nearly every group of girls in the bar, trying to strike up a conversation.
For the most part, they were swiftly turned down and returned to roaming the dance floor. The intoxication levels ranged from the seemingly sober to the very inebriated, and the bouncers outside were carefully evaluating each person who entered, sending a few people away who were “too drunk”.
In the early hours of the morning, people were beginning to pair-up and leave the club, or carry on to another venue. Outside, the line was only growing.
When the dance floor became too packed to move, I decided that it was time to give up my prime window seat, and leave the party-goers to it.
As I stepped outside, there was a girl sobbing incoherently to her friend, sitting in the gutter among the smokers. A man in a suit tried to sprint across the road, and the resounding horns from the cars on London Circuit echoed through the street.
As I left to head home, I was walking back to the car and could hear a group of girls walking behind me, giggling and screaming. As they ran past me in unbelievably high heels, I heard one of them yell:,“Let’s go to Moose!”
Of course, it’s impossible to experience each and every person’s night at Mooseheads. However, from my time in DSM, it appears that the negative stigma is not all it’s cracked up to be.
The bar and security staff are really there to make sure everyone has a good time. From the music to the people to the vibe, Downstairs Mooseheads certainly has something going for it. It’s certainly not a five-star venue, but it knows it.
The darkness and the dinge seem to work in Moose’s favour, and may even be a part of its charm. Owner and manager Tad Miladinovic says he’s convinced that Mooseheads is “heaven on Earth”’.
“I believe that when I die, I’ll walk through St Peter’s gates and straight into Downstairs Mooseheads. That’s what’ll happen, it’s beautiful,” he told me.