Sydney’s small bar revolution

A new wave of creative bars is reinvigorating Sydney’s nightlife scene, springing up along dark backstreets, down concrete service steps and through unmarked doors.

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 accessible.

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.

Then along 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.

The new 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 premises.

When the 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.

Sophisticated 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.

Locating cocktail 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.

Location is 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.

Bars such 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
Stepping 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.

While small 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)

These days 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.