A new wave
of bars is revolutionising Sydney’s nightlife scene, meaning that entertainment
in Australia’s largest city has never before been so copious, lively or
Time for a change
Sydney was once
ruled by prohibitively expensive and complex liquor licensing laws that created
an entertainment scene dominated by mega-clubs and large pubs packed with
income-generating gaming machines. Outside of this scene, options were limited,
if not dire. If you hoped for some kind of intimacy in a venue, you could
forget about it.
came the liquor licensing amendment of 2007. In a dramatic push to put Sydney
on the global nightlife map, politicians, entrepreneurs and locals backed
proposed changes that would see Sydney follow in the footsteps of other
Australian cities– and in particular, its southern rival Melbourne, famous for
its lively laneway bar culture.
laws provided affordable licenses to small bars that served alcohol (rather
than food) as their primary activity and permitted a maximum of 120 patrons. The
laws also explicitly banned gaming machines and takeaway liquor sales at these
amendment was passed, it suddenly became feasible to open intimate and creative
venues. And with that, the small bar boom began.
A new breed of bars
In the Central
Business District (CBD) and inner suburbs, especially Surry Hills and
Darlinghurst, Sydney’s small bars have been springing up along backstreets,
service alleys and slip roads, often in low-ceilinged basement spaces. They are
a very literal, physical difference from the towering nightclub complexes and
ground-level pubs; small bars often require you to burrow underground, to seek
out nooks and hidden corners, to look beneath the surface of things.
wine bars such as Love, Tilly Devine and 121
BC belie their obscure backstreet locations: both are invitingly narrow,
dimly lit, and fashionably fitted out. Love, Tilly
Devine takes on the industrial-chic trend
with folding pressed-steel chairs and exposed brickwork; while tiny 121 BC is
firmly European with its long, tiled communal table and dark interior, decorated
with a cluster of large golden light bulbs hanging from the ceiling.
bar Bulletin Place is like searching
for – and finding – a gold nugget, hidden as it is on its eponymous slip road near
touristy Circular Quay. Those
familiar with Melbourne’s bars will recognise the clues; vague crowd noises
emerging from the second floor and some graffiti art decorating an otherwise
nondescript stairway entrance.
a huge part of the small-bar attraction, capitalised on by the oft-seen theme
of prohibition-style speakeasies. These liquor dens are obscured from obvious
view, their lively crowds tucked away through unmarked doors, down concrete
service steps and back entrances, and along dark lanes. Some of the best are Palmer & Co, a slick
designer den of 1920s paraphernalia; Shady Pines Saloon, a hip
Western-style beer and whiskey joint; and Baxter
Inn, which is based on a 1920s Boston sports bar and crammed with some
rather odd taxidermy.
Themes are massive
on the Sydney small bar scene. Stitch is
decorated with Singer machines and sewing patterns, while Mojo Record Bar, occupying space next to
a record shop, keeps true to its cool, rock vibe with album covers lining the
bar. Kitsch Grandma’s is full of old-time paraphernalia including knitting
needles and yarn, and couches that are akin to something you might find in an
elderly relative’s house.
as Mojo Record Bar, share house shabby-chic Grasshopper, retro-cool Pocket and effortlessly gorgeous Arcadia Liquors offer an understated,
relaxed vibe, completely different to the styled sophistication of Palmer &
Co or the lively and equally styled – but somehow utterly cool – Shady Pines
Saloon. One thing uniting the majority of bars, however, is an amenable and passionate
staff. There is plenty of scope for Sydney’s small bars to be stuffy and
pretentious, and yet surprisingly few of them have taken that road.
A successful makeover
out in Sydney these days is an entirely different proposition to what it was five
years ago. Such is the propulsion of the small bar craze; new venues are
opening weekly and locals confess to finding it hard to keep up with the
ever-increasing options. Not that they are complaining – the mood on the
streets is predominantly one of relief and enthusiasm, and the quality of bar
seems to be improving and refining over time.
bars are predominantly an inner-city phenomenon, the suburb of Newtown is also
a hot location (try Corridor) and
the trend has grown out into the neighbourhoods of Woollahra (10 William St), Paddington (The Wine Library), Glebe (The Little Guy), Chippendale (Freda’s) and into the more gentrified pockets
of Redfern (Arcadia Liquors)
in Sydney there may still be some hesitation over where to go at night, but it
is no longer due to lack of options. If there is a downside, it is that small
bars are so popular, you still have to queue to get in.