Toasts of the town
Author: Pat Nourse
Photography: Will Horner,Anthony Geernaert
Rare is the Sydney pub today that hasn't surrendered space to
gambling in the form of poker machines or TAB facilities. Rarer
still is one where you're likely to meet the owner as they pour
your drink or cue up the next track. But that's exactly what's so
powerfully attractive about the city's new breed of watering hole:
The people behind the bars at these new places are frequently the very same souls who shepherded their DA past council, who wrote the drinks list, who hung the wallpaper. They can tell you why they did it, and they care about getting it right and about whether you, the customer, come back next week. Or tomorrow.
If you enjoy a beverage, there has never been a better time to take a taste of Sydney's nightlife. It's been five years since New South Wales's liquor licensing laws were changed to lower the entry barriers to bar ownership, and while it's still a hard slog to get the doors open, the influx of new operators has given the city's drinking scene a tremendous boost. Whether your preferred poison comes in the form of grape or grain, shaken or stirred, Sydney now caters to your good time in a way that might have finally surpassed even its traditional rival on this score, the city of Melbourne.
"Why did we open the bar? Because we love bars," says David
Jank. Jank and Brett Pritchard, his partner in Redfern's Arcadia
Liquors, had worked in bars and pubs for a decade and wanted to
start a place, he says, with "a welcoming and interesting
environment, stripped of the pitfalls of gambling and impersonal
service that's ruined the pub scene".
The collection of bars we're saluting here is the very latest crop, but it would be remiss of us not to recognise the pioneers of this brave new world of libations whose venues all continue to lead the way for the operators to come. Chief among them are the Swillhouse Group, whose first two bars, Shady Pines and The Baxter Inn, showed that there was space for boozers that combined pub-like egalitarianism with bar-like focus. Wine bars such as 121BC, The Wine Library, 10 William Street and Love, Tilly Devine made the grape more fun, while the likes of Eau-de-Vie and Gardel's raised the profile of mixology even as they dropped the attitude.
Good things take time, and this is just the beginning, but it's a damned fine start, and an even better reason to take a look at Sydney from a different angle. "We have a long way to go," says Dominique Easter, of The Hazy Rose. "There's a lot of untapped potential."
The strongest argument for Redfern being a destination after dark comes in the form of this thoroughly friendly, richly realised neighbourhood bar. A simple list of reasonably priced cocktail classics augment a strong list of beers and ciders, bottled and draught, and if the offerings from the hard-working sandwich press aren't substantial enough, the Cantonese barbecue place over the other side of Regent Street ferries duck and char siu to the bar all night long. With bands, beards and the odd BMX wheeling in, it sounds a bit Brooklynesque on paper, but the vibe is pure go-Aussie good times. 7 Cope St, Redfern, (02) 8068 4470
Bottleneck Bar & Eatery
This micro-bar offshoot between its parent bar Eau-de-Vie and the lobby of the Kirketon Hotel is Bottleneck by nature as well as name. It may be a bit deliberate in its quirkiness, but it has charm nonetheless. The focus on the drink and food fronts is ultra-niche - Bloody Marys and meatballs (kerazy, right?) - but fortunately both are rendered with care. In addition to the meatballs (Greek lamb, say, or pork and porcini) and the varied Marys (a Bloody Maria, for instance, with tequila and mezcal, or others spiked with gin or Cynar), there's the likes of bread with gravy butter, mac and cheese, not to mention a couple of pre-bottled (what the bartenders would call "batched") drinks on hand. They pack a punch: the American Trilogy, an Old Fashioned-like arrangement of rye, applejack and orange bitters, will put hair on the hair on your chest. 229 Darlinghurst Rd, Darlinghurst, (02) 9357 2470
Welcome to the the most significant Australian bar opening of the past 12 months. With its air of laid-back professionalism, Bulletin Place might not immediately seem like an envelope-pusher, but it's a breath of fresh air. Tim Philips, Adi Ruiz and Rob Sloan know the dominant waistcoated, waxed-moustache school of bartending inside out (and Philips, named World's Best Bartender in Rio last year by spirits giant Diageo, has the braces to prove it), but they want to bring some life into what has become an increasingly airless craft. To this end they exhibit a chef-like approach to their work, picking the best of the market's produce each day and building their list around it from scratch. If the idea of too much salad in your glass troubles you, fear not - these drinks have fruit in them, but they're not fundamentally fruity. Such is the foundation of skill of this bartending A-team that, whether you're talking the Fresh Quince of Bel Air (Cognac, dry vermouth, spiced quince) or the Fig Rickey (rum, figs, lime and soda), balance and good taste rule the day. Level 1, 10-14 Bulletin Pl, Sydney
The latest basement issue from Jason Scott and Anton Forte (architects of the Shady Pines and Baxter Inn axis-of-finely-tuned mayhem) is also in some ways their most ambitious. The front room is a candles-and-Chianti-bottle pizzeria, replete with actual pizza and plenty of amari, while out the back it's all '70s rock 'n' roll - a stage, booths, pinball machines and a plastering of band posters. Unlike just about every other new bar in town, too, it's open late - very late, in fact, usually shutting its doors about 4am. Where both the Pines and the Baxter have a cocktail focus, at Frankie's the spirits are dispensed with a mixer at most, and the focus is on some truly out-there beers. That could be a can of the highly sessionable Low Ridin' Lager from Sweden's Pistonhead, or Rogue XS Old Crustacean, "an unfiltered and unrefined beast of a beer" that you can eat with a knife and fork. 50 Hunter St, Sydney
The Hazy Rose
The Rose is one of the great charmers of the new Sydney bar scene, with personality to burn and a magic it owes in no small part to co-owners and father-daughter team Derek and Dominique Easter and bar manager Harriet Leigh. Calibre of chat being one of the great metrics of bar quality, barkeep Brendan Keown cuts a particular dash as he dispenses trivia - he moonlights as a pub quizmaster - as readily as he crisply stirs the Boulevardiers (Bourbon, sweet vermouth and Campari) and strains the grapefruit-zesty house Martinis. It attracts a crowd that's nothing if not eclectic. "We really like our clientele," says Easter. "We get a lot of guys who drink gin and girls who drink whiskey. And we're far more likely to be asked for a whiskey sour than a vodka, lime and soda, which as any Sydney bartender will tell you, is a rare treat." 1/83 Stanley St, Darlinghurst, (02) 9357 5036
The very new, thoroughly rock 'n' roll Mary's - fronted by former Bodega front-of-house pirate Jake Smyth and Gardel's barman Kenny Graham, and with backing from team Porteño - is the best thing to happen to Newtown since finger tattoos. "It's just a neighbourhood bar influenced by the things we love," says Smyth. "Cheap, easy-drinking beer, but also funky, natural and biodynamic wine." Food-wise, former Tetsuya's head chef Luke Powell is lending a hand, which means that though the menu is limited pretty much to a couple of burgers and some fried chicken, those burgers and chicken lay a credible claim to being the finest in town. It's the sort of place that pours "an outrageous" gamay and "a delicious picpoul" alongside Budweiser from the bottle, Reschs on tap and a surprisingly drinkable Malibu Daiquiri, and interweaves Wilco and Wu-Tang Clan on its playlists. 6 Mary St, Newtown
The Midnight Special
Midnight by name, although the tight licences granted new bars in Sydney mean it's not so much midnight by nature, this whiskey-scented champion of the live and local has the dial firmly set to late-night loopiness and/or languor nonetheless. That could mean two hours of Motörhead and five-dollar Jack-and-Cokes (that would be the Lemmy "Hour", Thursdays five till seven) or an evening of prewar gospel and ragtime, switching between vinyl and live music as the moment dictates. Things follow suit in the glass with Dark and Stormys, Boilermakers, jalapeño-enlivened Margaritas and other suitably cockle-warming hooch. 44 Enmore Rd, Newtown, (02) 9516 2345
Mojo Record Bar
The mullet, that king of hairstyles, is termed, by its devotees, as "business in front, party out the back". There are parallels here with Mojo Record Bar, a symbiosis of one of Sydney's most respected purveyors of vinyl, Mojo Records, and one of its best-liked bartenders, Natalie Ng. Simply put, they sell great records out the front, and, out the back, past the swing doors, great drinks. Mojo provides the tunes, which puts a winning emphasis on Iggy Pop, Bowie, The White Stripes, The Black Keys and James Brown, while Ng and her compadres bring the fun, pour the local craft beers, line up the tequila shots and produce bowls of Toobs. Expect to leave smiling, quite probably clutching a raft of LPs, regardless of whether you actually own a turntable. Basement, 73 York St, Sydney, (02) 9262 4999
Vasco's rough-and-tumble, rock 'n' roll troubadour vibe, and the clear and present danger of a great many cans of beer belie the fact that its principals, owner Max Greco and bar manager Luke Ashton, have some serious cocktail cred. They're certainly more than happy pouring shots and popping the tops on tinnies (not to mention overworking the cymbals strung over the bar itself), but with Greco's background fronting former GT Bar of the Year Eau-de-Vie and Ashton having won many fans in his time dispensing the hooch at Duke, more high-falutin' libations are here for the drinking. Get tropical with the Witchy Woman, which combines Havana Club rum, pineapple, lime and bitters for a tall glass of Tiki trouble, or go four-to-the-floor with the Eagle Rock, a ballsy blend of applejack and Fernet mildly alleviated by Punt e Mes and Bénédictine. 421 Cleveland St, Surry Hills
The Wild Rover
When is an Irish pub not an Irish pub? When it's a bar rather than a pub, for starters. Yes, there's still Guinness on tap, but it comes in a frosty tankard and is likely accompanied by a dozen Pambula oysters. In place of the usual tat-by-numbers on the walls you'll find a jungle motif and, because the Rover is the latest from the same chaps behind CBD rum brothel Grandma's, there's a mighty spirits offer. Whiskies are the thing here, whether it's Clontarf Trinity from County Antrim or the considerably more frightening poteen. There's more to it than Irish handcuffs, though, whether it's a Gibbo on the Rocks (the house take on the Gibson Martini), or the Weeski, a David Wondrich-inspired charmer built from Irish whiskey, Lillet and orange liqueur. On the speakers it is, to use co-owner James Bradey's phrase, "foot-stomping, swashbuckling, beer-swilling Irish folk with a little rockabilly, blues and '50s swing for good measure". Consider yourself warned. 75 Campbell St, Surry Hills, (02) 9280 2235
Ten more for the road
A few slightly more established but no less splendid Sydney bars.
Still the standard-setter for gilt-edged cocktail service. Ask for Charlie. 229 Darlinghurst Rd, Darlinghurst, (02) 9357 2470
With the city's largest range of mezcal and chilli-dusted fried crickets as bar snacks, the Mexican vibe here goes well beyond skin-deep. Level 3, The Eastern Hotel, 500 Oxford St, Bondi Junction, (02) 8383 5959
The Porteño bar rocks out, Latin-style, with Fernet-and-colas, Estrella on tap and killer eats. Level 1, 358 Cleveland St, Surry Hills, (02) 8399 1440
Manly has seen a mini-bar explosion of its own of late; Hemingway's, though, remains the heavyweight. Big props to a bar that subtitles its House Drinks section "us playing around, you seeing the humour". 48 North Steyne, Manly, (02) 9976 3030
A little bit Tiki, a little bit rock 'n' roll, and completely likeable. Make ours a chipotle-infused Batanga. 185 Darlinghurst Rd, Darlinghurst, (02) 8084 6379
Palmer & Co
This attempt at a golden-age boozer from big bar players Merivale can be a bit creaky and stagy in its speakeasy theme, but the late licence (until four) is a straight-up win. Abercrombie La, Sydney, (02) 9240 3172
Shady Pines Saloon
Peanuts, taxidermy, country music and serious hooch. Bring lawyers, guns and money. Shop 4, 256 Crown St (enter via Foley St), Darlinghurst
The Baxter Inn
Son of Shady: whisky, blues and pretzels. Bring lawyers, guns and money. Basement, 152-156 Clarence St, Sydney
With former Bayswater Brasserie shaker guru Andy Penney guiding the ship, it's a yacht-rock party come high or low tide. 8 Campbell Pde, Bondi Beach, (02) 8084 3145
Shady Pines' younger Latin American cousin. Tequila and trouble in equal measure. Not a quiet night out. 4/14 Foster St, Surry Hills