Sydney's small bar scene takes off
For years, a night out in Sydney meant downing schooners at a huge, street-corner pub before hitting one of the gaudy mega-clubs in Kings Cross.
Now, however, drinkers are turning their backs on raucous pubs and heaving nightclubs in favor of smaller, more intimate watering holes.
Since a change in licensing laws in 2008 made it easier, and far cheaper, for potential proprietors to open so-called “small bars” –- with capacities under 120 and, significantly, no gaming machines -– more than 50 of these pint-sized drinking dens have sprung up across the city.
“Melbourne had always led the way with the small bar movement and, much to Sydney’s disdain, we were never able to do the same thing,” says Chris Lane, who opened the city’s first small bar, the appropriately-named Small Bar, in 2008. “People had been to these other cities and wanted to see the same sort of bars in Sydney. The market was ready for it.”
“We had a history of only having large pubs here in Sydney,” adds Jason Scott, co-owner of three of the city’s most popular small bars, including Shady Pines in Darlinghurst and the Baxter Inn in the city’s central business district.
“We’d never had small, owner-operated bars, which feel more authentic than the large, corporate-owned chains.”
'More character and passion'
Often hidden in basements and laneways, with little or no signage to distinguish them from their surroundings, these quirky new venues have added some much-needed vigor and vibrancy to Sydney’s bar scene.
“Each one has its own personality and style,” explains James Bradey, owner of Grandma’s Bar.
“They’re a little bit more personable and they’re focusing on quality of service and the experience. While every single one may not appeal to everybody, there’s going to be one or two out there that are exactly what you’re looking for.”
From Western-themed saloons and 1920s-style speakeasies, to kitsch cocktail bars and grungy rock ’n’ roll joints, the small bar trend has seen all manner of venues open their doors.
“Most big pubs all have the same eight beers, whereas smaller operators, who are more enthusiastic about providing a different service, will seek out the little craft boutique beers, so there’s a wider range of products on offer,” says Scott.
“You can see that the owners are showing you something about themselves, so therefore you get more character and passion coming through.”
With new places seemingly opening up each month, the trend shows little sign of slowing down, with Sydneysiders looking to discover the next big thing in small bars.
Five of Sydney's best small bars
If you can find this American-style drinking den, which is tucked away in a basement at the end of an uninviting alleyway off Clarence Street, you’ll be rewarded with perhaps the best selection of whiskey in the city.
There are more than 300 bottles to choose from, all proudly displayed behind the bar.
The low lighting, jazz soundtrack and exposed brick walls –- all adorned with retro boxing and horseracing paraphernalia -– make this the perfect place to sit back for a dram or two.
Basement, 152-156 Clarence St.; Monday-Saturday, 4 p.m.-1 a.m.; www.thebaxterinn.com
Located on a laneway near Circular Quay, this tiny bar opened in December last year and is co-owned by Tim Phillips, who was named World Class Bartender of the Year in 2012.
Cocktails are, unsurprisingly, the stars of the show, with an ever-changing selection –- drinks make use of whatever is in season -– displayed on a roll of paper behind the bar.
The rustic décor, casual atmosphere and exquisite cocktails –- all made by knowledgeable bar staff -– look set to make Bulletin Place a firm favorite with Sydney’s small bar connoisseurs.
10-14 Bulletin Place, 1/F; Monday-Saturday, 4 p.m.-midnight (opens at 6 p.m. on Saturdays); www.bulletinplace.com
A mounted stag’s head greets drinkers at this longtime favorite, hidden beneath a guitar shop on Clarence Street, before they descend the stairs into a kitschy cavern filled with what the owners describe as “faded granny glamour.”
The extensive cocktail menu includes classics such as daiquiris, margaritas and mai tais, as well as more exotic concoctions from around the world.
The doilies, teacups and patterned wallpaper accentuate the homely feel of this warm and welcoming watering hole.
275 Clarence St. (basement); +61 (0)2 9264 3004; Monday-Saturday, noon-midnight (opens at 5 p.m. on Saturdays); www.grandmasbarsydney.com.au
Mojo Record Bar
If you hadn’t guessed from the framed album covers and vintage tour posters that line the velvet walls –- or the fact that you have to pass through a record store to get in here -– this place is a shrine to all things musical, although it’s slanted more toward Morrison than Mozart.
Australian craft beers dominate the menu, but there’s also a decent selection of cocktails. The bar’s vast record collection ensures that you can enjoy plenty of good tunes.
73 York St. (basement); www.mojorecordbar.com
After descending the steps from York Street, next to an innocuous looking suit shop, you're transported into what could easily pass for a glamorous 1920s opium den.
Lit with a soft red glow and furnished with retro Oriental décor –- complemented by a whiff of burning incense -- Uncle Ming’s is a world away from most Sydney small bars.
Add in Japanese whiskey, Asian beers and cocktails served in teapots –- plus dumplings to snack on –- and you have a sure-fire winner.
55 York St.; www.unclemings.com.au