Melbourne best be prepared to hand over the title of Australia’s small bar capital. But will the new licensing laws scupper the progress?
Story: James Dampney
For decades, Sydney’s Central Business District was a place frequented predominantly by busy, suited men armed with their briefcases and wide-eyed tourists trying to find their way to the harbour.
In terms of hospitality offerings there were slim pickings to say the least, with the odd flash-in-the-pan nightclub and fine dining restaurant sprinkled among the old-school pubs.
The change in liquor licensing laws back in 2007 sparked a welcome change, with venues such as Grandma’s, Grasshopper and the Baxter Inn adding some intrigue and lustre to the often-dreary skyscrapers and bus stations.
But the level of creativity, versatility and flat-out bartending skills has reached new levels over the past 12 months.
In a career spanning more than two decades, Mike Enright has done virtually all there is to do in the hospitality and liquor industry, establishing himself as one of the pre-eminent cocktail men in the business.
He has helped open venues and design cocktail lists across Australia; acted as a consultant in the United States, Hong Kong, UK and Indonesia; and been entrusted as the bars manager for the monolith that is Merivale.
But there remained one element missing on his impressive CV. “I always wanted to open my own bar,” the Englishman confides. “And not just that, I wanted to do something a little bit different and have the full creative freedom, which I’d never had before.”
So began the first steps towards The Barber Shop, Enright’s venue which opened in July 2013 and has formed part of what he describes as “a new drinking district” in the heart of the CBD.
A location that took two years to find and was originally an office space on bustling York Street, Enright made the decision to combine a traditional barber shop with a fine drinking establishment.
Throw in his penchant for gin and a unique concept was born.
Utilising the skills of the team at Liquid Design, visitors enter a fully functioning barber shop at street level and then scale a short staircase at the back, where the spacious, naturally lit bar awaits.
“The influence behind the bar itself was to create a gin palace,” Enright explains. “So gin and tonics served in old, goblet-style glasses reminiscent of the ’50s and ’60s in the UK and Ireland.
“It was basically trying to create my ideal bar and what products it would serve in it and, being British, I wanted to go back down that road and have a slight English feel.
“People are also starting to get their haircut at barbers again, rather than Toni & Guy or hairdresser salons. That culture has changed in men’s grooming. I saw that change and wanted to combine that with the drink side of it.”
Cocktail offerings including a Cutthroat Martini, a Blood and Bandages and a Barbicide complete the theme at a venue that shares its back laneway with the team at Baxter Inn.
Along with the gins at Barber Shop and the whiskeys at Baxter’s Chicago-themed mainstay, patrons can also stroll just a few short steps across Clarence St to discover The Lobo Plantation.
The brainchild of General Manager Jared Merlino — another Merivale protégé — and two silent partners, Lobo also offers a totally unique experience to the bevy of options now within close proximity.
Traversing your way down a spiral staircase, Lobo opens up to a beautifully designed space with a Caribbean flavour where rum is the spirit of choice.
It has already had an impact, claiming three honours at the 2014 Bar Awards, including the people’s choice award and best new fitout, just a few short months into its existence.
The diversity of these establishments means the various owners and managers — many of whom cut their hospitality teeth together — are happy to work in collaboration.
“We don’t really view it as competition and that’s the good thing about the small bar guys,” Merlino said. “Many of us come from a similar background or know each other or have worked together. In my immediate vicinity the Baxter guys are across the road and that’s obviously one of the best bars in the world. They were extremely helpful when we were opening up, guiding us in the right direction with a few things, always lending a hand when we needed it. We don’t view it like 10 years ago when the guy down the road was direct competition. We’re offering a very different product to what they’re offering. We’re a rum-focused Caribbean bar, they’re a Chicago, blues, whiskey bar. Then you’ve got Barber Shop in the same laneway as Baxter and I worked with Mikey Enright at Merivale. On Kent Street we’ve got the Papa Geddes guys and they’re a voodoo bar that holds about 50 people.
“It’s a really good mix of bars and products and makes people realise Sydney is full of creative people and there is a diversity in hospitality venues and the type of product they can consume. It makes people want to get more than just a schooner down at the pub on the corner.”
It’s a sentiment loudly echoed by Enright: “It’s a new drinking district really that’s happened, which is great,” he said. “All these bars cater to probably a similar audience, but they all have such a different feel. More people are heading to the city for a night out, whereas they might’ve just stayed in Surry Hills or Darlinghurst or Bondi or Manly.”
PAPA & SODA
Papa Geddes, owned and operated by Michael Dhinse and Joshua Ng, is one of the newest CBD offerings, a tiki cocktail haven situated in a courtyard on Kent Street that opened in November 2013. It is another key member in the block of top quality bars situated between George Street and Darling Harbour that has revitalised the city centre.
But it isn’t just the new-look ‘Hospitality Row’ embedded in the CBD that can tempt the tastebuds of discerning drinkers in the harbour city. Soda Factory in Surry Hills recently celebrated its first birthday, marking the occasion with a new food menu and a visit from legendary DJ Grandmaster Flash.
With a focus on music, good food and their slant on traditional cocktails, Soda has found the right balance in a space on Wentworth Avenue that previously saw a number of hospitality attempts come and go.
Make your way further up Oxford Street and another treasure trove of options awaits, underlined by established venues Shady Pines Saloon, Pocket Bar and Low 302, plus an exciting newcomer in Hello Sailor.
More about them a little later.
IT’S A LOCKOUT
The small bar momentum seems irresistible, but the industry has hit a speed hump, courtesy of the NSW government. In a direct response to two high-profile incidents in recent months of young men losing their lives due to ‘king hits’, a raft of new laws have been ushered in with incredible speed. Some, such as minimum sentencing for alcohol- or drug-fuelled assaults resulting in death and on-the-spot fines for disorderly behaviour, were largely well received. But it was the 1.30am lockout, a blanket 3am cessation on serving drinks and the forced closure of bottle shops at 10pm that raised plenty of eyebrows.
Another law that caused consternation among the industry was a two-year freeze on new liquor licences and approvals for existing licences across the Sydney CBD.
Merlino believes some of the measures are totally unnecessary and will hobble some of the excellent progress being made: “The recent change in laws has really thrown a spanner in the works,” he says. “The two-year freeze on new licences, the freeze on changing conditions of existing licences, alcohol bans, people not allowed in venues after 1.30am — it’s all going to affect the progress.
“Lobo has been operating for over nine months and we haven’t had one single incident of violence; we rarely have to RSA people and remove them from the venue; we’re not the problem when it comes to alcohol-related violence.
“I actually hate that term because I don’t think it is alcohol-related violence, I think it’s just violence in general. These laws are now going to hinder a lot of people that want to move into the scene because you can’t get a new licence.
“It was going very well and we have seen some massive progress, but I am a little bit worried now about where we’re heading.”
Luke Redington is another major player in the Sydney bar scene, a man who started off picking up glasses in 2006 before progressing quickly up the food chain.
Making his way through Hugo’s Bar Pizza and a management role at the award-winning staple that is Eau De Vie in Darlinghurst, Redington also shared the common dream of running his own venue.
Teaming up with good mate and bartending institution Marco Faraone, the pair came up with the concept for Hello Sailor.
“We wanted to do something nautical-themed in the city,” Redington said. “For a long time there wasn’t that element of a seafood-driven, nautical-themed cocktail bar in Sydney.”
Like the others, Redington and Faraone spent many months searching for the best location, with their stops including the site eventually chosen by Enright for Barber Shop. They ultimately plumped for a space over two levels that has an entrance on Oxford Street and also shares a laneway with Shady Pines.
Adding their own distinctive flavour to the new-look bar scene, Redington has noticed a seismic shift in the drinking habits of Sydneysiders. He also has his concerns with the new laws, particularly the curfew.
“The biggest change has been just the education customers have now regarding alcohol and how you can drink it,” he said. “You couldn’t sell a pisco or a mescal in the past. Even gin was just starting to become a trend and now customers are more educated, just because there’s more variety.
“In saying that. I’ve noticed that extra variety means there aren’t so many regulars anymore. When there were less venues, there were constant regulars. Now there’s so much variety, when people go out they don’t have to go to the same bar for the next three or four months. The variety of bars and what you can get in Sydney now is exciting. But the new laws are going to change the dynamic of where people go at what times, because of the curfew. You really want to get to a venue before you can’t get into it, which is going to be a massive change.”
Sydney venues such as Baxter, Eau de Vie and Bulletin Place are now internationally recognised, all three earning a place last year on one publication’s list of the top 50 bars worldwide. It remains to be seen what impact the new laws — introduced on February 24 — will have, with one suggestion that the freeze on licences will prompt a surge in commercial interest in premises outside the CBD. But there is still a veritable gold mine for locals and visitors alike to explore.
“There’s been a massive, positive shift in the venues that have been established in Sydney,” Merlino said. “People are really sitting up and taking notice of Sydney now in regards to the level of hospitality we’re providing and the style we’ve created. In the CBD, all we really used to have were large venues and pubs.
“The change in the laws in 2007 allowed small bars to come on the scene and opened up the opportunity for people like ourselves and other small bar operators to put their love and passion into something.
“There has been a shift over the last few years from Melbourne being considered the small bar capital of Australia, to Sydney now really being considered a strong contender for that title. It’s fantastic.”