City Guide to Sydney

16 October, 2014

Sam Bygrave taps into Sydney’s growing bar scene

There’s a lot to contend with as a Sydneysider: long, slow commutes, a frustrating taxi system and one of the highest costs of living in the world. I’ve heard it said that it takes energy and purpose to live here — it’s not all sunshine, harbour views and beaches — it’s chaotic, loud and busy and I love it. 

Thankfully we’ve got a growing bar scene fuelled by equally driven operators and top class bartending talent to give us with a little relief. 

The central business district used to be a wasteland, dominated by large pubs and not much else. When the office towers emptied out at the end of the day, so too did the city. And in the early 2000s we were cursed — much like the rest of the world — with the twin scourges of bottle service and guest lists. The cost of opening a bar was in the millions. 

A change in the licensing laws in 2009 made it easier for smaller bars to open; combined with a burgeoning brigade of bartenders armed with a knowledge of classic drinks and a passion for good hooch, the once soulless heart of the city has come to life.

And this is the real story of the last five years. With the dream of their own bar more attainable, small, owner-operator bars have become the norm. Many of them have found the unused office
basements and neglected alleyways to be prime — and cheap — locations to set up, particularly around York Street, which for a long time has been little more than a thoroughfare for overcrowded buses and unavailable taxis. 

The drinking in Sydney now rivals the best cities in the world, and what’s more, we still have that sunshine, that fine harbour, and those glorious beaches. 

Shady Pines Saloon, 4/256 Crown Street, Darlinghurst

Peanuts, rye whiskey, hoppy American brews — and a whole lot of taxidermy. Those four things were different to any other Sydney bar when they opened four years ago — and Shady has a lot to answer for. 

Today there are craft American brews throughout Sydney bars, bartenders have become enamoured with rye whiskey and taxidermy popped up everywhere (bar design trends have now, thankfully, moved on). But though these were the things a lot of people talked about, the things that made Shady Pines Saloon such a success were the hospitality, and the attention to the small things — things that you’ll still get there today. 

If you spend enough time perched at the bar or at the tables that are surely leftover from a Western, you’ll see suits, hipsters and a steady stream of off-duty hospitality types dropping in for a beer and a shot.

Bulletin Place, 10-14 Bulletin Place, Sydney

To hear co-owner and bartender Adi Ruiz talk about fruit and veg is quite the learning experience. It’s not the sexy stuff of marketing, but it shows the attention to detail and the love of their craft that marks this bar as one of the very best in the country. 

The ownership trio of Tim Philips, Rob Sloan and Adi Ruiz are some of the most knowledgeable bartenders we have, but it is never a chore to sit at the bar and talk to them. It’s one of the few bars where it really is about you, not the bartender, not the owner.

The cocktail menu changes daily: five drinks driven by the best their man at the markets can pick up each morning. Seldom more than four ingredients to a drink, they mine that classic cocktail knowledge to create refreshing cocktails that you might never taste again. 

The Rook, Level 7, 56-58 York Street, Sydney

Get this address into Google maps, because after a couple of drinks along this street you may find some difficulty in locating the exact dreary office block it sits atop. Don’t mind the fluorescent lights in the lobby; get in the lift, hit the button labelled “R” and ascend to the roof.

This place is part restaurant, part bar. The food is solid, casual fare (with a focus on lobster), but it’s the bar where you want to find yourself. 

Manned by Cristiano Beretta (who used to run things at award-winning Melbourne bar, Black Pearl) with a gin focus, the cocktails come to the fore here. 

It’s the theatre here that makes the 12 drinks on their list stand out from the rest, with Beretta and Jason Williams (who won the global final of the Beefeater competition earlier this year) creating cocktails that tend toward the unexpected, yet are always balanced and delicious.

The Baxter Inn, 152-156 Clarence Street, Sydney

If Shady Pines was a statement of intent from the Swillhouse guys, then The Baxter Inn, their second venue, was a promise fulfilled.

The Baxter Inn is all about whiskey. The cocktails are always on point, so too the service, thanks to well-drilled and knowledgeable bar team headed up by Lewis Jaffrey. 

They are one of the tightest crews serving drinks, everyone pulls the same crazy hours, and yet no-one ever seems to leave (unless it’s to open their own bar).

This bar was unthinkable 10 years ago. Sitting in the basement of an unremarkable block on Clarence Street — a street cloaked in perpetual shadow thanks to the drab office tower blocks, it is one of the main conduits for buses fleeing the city. You have to venture down a darkened alleyway — something Sydneysiders are still getting used to doing — and you will have to queue. But today it sets the standard nationwide.

Ramblin’ Rascal Tavern, 60 Park Street, Sydney

Down a long staircase you step into a room of brick, dark timber, and dark boothing. Advertisements from
the 1950s line the walls, a time when Sydney was a simpler, if corrupt, kind of town, a far-flung port of the empire. 

Behind the bar an illustration by a tattoo artist advertises a $6 “shit tinnie”. 

It’s a lo-fi place manned by bartenders of the highest order. Cognac is the shot of choice, because that’s the stuff the owners, Dardan Shervashidze, Charlie Lehmann, and Sebastian Soto, like to drink and you’ll see them there behind the stick every night of the week. 

This bar is loud, raucous, and undeniably fun. It’s not the kind of place you’d normally expect an expertly mixed cocktail — but they do that too. They’ve got a list of just six cocktails (five of which feature cognac), ranging from the classic to a typically tongue-in-cheek Instant-Coffee Martini. 

The Lobo Plantation, Basement Lot 1, 209 Clarence St, Sydney

It’s the one Sydney bar that has mastered the art of transporting you to another place. Through closed double doors, down a curved wrought iron staircase and surrounded by a growing garden wall of greenery, you emerge into a piece of that golden age when air travel afforded wealthy Americans an escape to Cuba during Prohibition. 

There’s no yawning pretence from the bartenders, nor slavish adherence to a Prohibition theme; just great drinks and a devil-may-care feeling of being very far away having too much fun.

Open for a little over a year now, the bar has hit its straps; a solid team to match the sturdy bar, attentive table service at the low luxurious booths.

The Lobo can easily lay claim to Sydney’s largest rum collection, and the cocktail list features the spirit prominently. Think of riffs on tiki drinks, classic Cuban cocktails, with Caribbean-influenced eats to accompany the rum. 

The Barber Shop, 89 York Street, Sydney

To enter this bar, you step through an old school barber’s shop, before reaching The Barber Shop proper. I’m sure I’ve read somewhere that alcohol thins the blood, but the opportunity for a man to get a close cutthroat shave while sipping on drinks this good is worth the risk. Dark racing greens line the wall and pristine white tiles adorn the stately bar; rising behind it is row upon row of gin.

It’s the gin that’s the thing here. A list sourced from all over the world, they’ve got Plymouth on tap, from which they’ll mix you up a gin and fresh-pressed juice. With the pedigree of owner Mike Enright — a fixture of top Sydney cocktailing for a decade — the cocktail list is worth a look. Gin plays a starring role, with classics like the Gimlet, made with a housemade lime cordial joining signature serves like the Blackgate Lane (Ford’s Gin, curacao, Cynar and raspberry syrup).

Mary’s, 6 Mary Street, Newtown

It is the burger that set loose a thousand tweets. The Mary’s burger deservedly set off a social media storm last year. This is a pub, though perhaps not as we’ve known them in the past. They stock craft beers from the local area, boast an ever-changing wine list of small producers making interesting and challenging wines, and can put together a well-constructed cocktail, too. 

Set in a converted church that saw time as an STD treatment centre, Mary’s is set down a small side street off Newtown’s King Street.  

It represents what a good pub should. Whilst everyone raves about the burgers (the fried chicken is its own phenomenon, too) and the drinks are excellent, the focus for owner-operators Kenny Graham and Jake Smyth is on hospitality. There are beards a-plenty, and the place could be all kinds of hipster wrong; the simple truth is they are nice guys making good food and slinging great drinks. 

Mojo Record Bar, 73 York Street, Sydney

The record store — you know, the type that sells vinyl — is in a decline throughout the world. The owners of Mojo Record Bar may just have the business model solution: start slinging booze.

It’s got a shop at the front, with a party in the back. The ceiling is adorned with vinyl records, the banter over the bar comes thick and fast, and it’s all to a soundtrack that swings from 50s crooning to Delta blues and rock’ n’ roll.

It’s the kind of place you want to get to early to snare a seat at the bar; the drinks will keep coming at you (from craft Australian beers to cocktails — it’s all good here), and you’ll be entertained by the chat between bartenders and between the customers. This is a good time place. You’ll get in early; you’ll definitely leave late. 

Eau de Vie, 2298 Darlinghurst Road, Darlinghurst

Eau de Vie is responsible for a slew of great Sydney bartenders since opening in 2010.

Nearly five years on, the surrounds are still plush, the drinks always world class, and the bartenders as hospitable and welcoming as ever. There’s the bells and whistles of drinks prepped with liquid nitrogen, and drinks with roots in the 1800s. Eau de Vie won’t leave the classics as is if they think they can add to it. An Absinthe Frappe — a drink with a long history — is on their current list and it’s one you won’t see in many places having fallen out of favour much like absinthe itself. A perfectly nice drink as it is, the Eau de Vie version, as always, adds a little refinement: a dash of honey and a splash of maraschino is added to their version. The drink’s presentation, a hallmark of Eau de Vie’s work, would wring flowery prose out of even the most Hemingway-esque of writers.

Sam Bygrave is the editor of Australian Bartender based in Sydney

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