Since the small bar revolution hit Sydney, dozens of establishments have taken advantage of relaxed liquor licensing laws to open in the laneways and nooks of Sydney. Many of them are ‘hidden’ away from the public gaze, their inaccessibility only adding to the charm and unique selling point afforded by specialist themes and their limited interior space
That is, until their location becomes public knowledge. The appeal of these bars is that is that the majority are themed – American saloon, cliched tropics – and/or specialists in some genre of alcohol – be it whisky, spirits, or artisan cocktails. To those who ‘discover’ or visit these establishments, they are the equivalent of a personal bar with levels of quality and personalised service unmatched anywhere else.
But when word spreads, the food-bloggers and magazines arrive – and with them, an audience just waiting to dig out the bandwagon and shove their unwanted, classless custom into the limited confines of those previously cosy establishments. In this article, we look at five formerly ‘hidden’ Sydney bars whose popularity soared and whose charm was lost when their existence was finally revealed to the general public.
The Baxter Inn
Hidden down a dark, sometimes smelly laneway off Clarence St is the epitome of small bars ruined by extreme popularity. The Baxter Inn was created by the same team who brought us Shady Pines, but with a completely different modus operandi. Whereas the latter was designed as an imitation American saloon bar, Baxter was designed as a home for scotch lovers.
Indeed, there is nothing quite like it anywhere in Australia. From its opening, The Baxter Inn had more than 250 individual whiskies from Scotland, Ireland, Australia and Japan. Since then, it has expanded its collection to more than 400 from at least half a dozen nations, categorised by producer and region on a back wall that stretches from floor-to-ceiling, and administered by the most knowledgeable bar staff ever seen in this city.
Part of the extensive scotch menu at The Baxter Inn
You could literally have a different scotch each and every day for more than a year. Throw in unlimited free bowls of pretzels, and the deep knowledge and passion held by its bartenders, and it’s not hard to see the attraction in this place.
However, the rather secluded, cosy nature of the basement location means that it doesn’t take much of a crowd to exhaust the limited seating, nor does it take much to fill the place to barely breathing space. This wasn’t a problem for its first year in operation – but once it became the subject of foodbloggers and online articles, the cramped space of Baxter became a total liability.
Nowadays, it is common to see queues out the front door from opening time right through to very late in the evening, and a steady stream of guests lined up down the alley and back onto the Clarence Street footpath. Go inside, and the din from their conversation rebounds off the walls to create a deafening echo chamber in which hearing becomes optional. The worst part is, few of these people are actually scotch connoisseurs, or on a mission to learn about whisky and its many nuances.
In fact, from personal observation they are the people most likely to order some idiotic combination of spirits in some idiotic cocktail from bemused bartenders whose politeness masks the disdain held for customers who completely ignore the very special theme upon which the bar is built. There aren’t many bars around for scotch-lovers, so it would be nice for it to return to its pre-foodblogger state.
So people, if you want cocktails, beer, wine or any other non-whisky beverage, for the sake of humanity and the scotch-lovers of Sydney go somewhere else.
Seating is already limited at The Baxter Inn even before the masses arrive in the usual evening rush.
Also below street-level in a quiet part of Clarence Street is the rather quaint setting of Grandma’s. It portrays itself as quirky, but is in fact so kitschy that transcends parody to the point of being borderline nauseating. To be fair, it was probably deliberate on the part of the staff, whose passion for artisan cocktails is evident in a menu which stretches to more than half-a-dozen pages.
Indeed, Grandma’s is first and foremost a cocktail bar. Which makes you question why anybody would bother going inside if all they were going to order was a beer, wine, or straight spirit from Grandma’s rather limited non-cocktail selection. The wine list is a curious collection of ever-changing regions and prices, and the food menu is equally lacking in substance. It could well be an airline menu, the most notable item being biltong from an otherwise forgettable collection of mixed nuts, chicken dishes, toasties, and ethnic-style cuisine such as imitation Mexican muck.
The latter is no doubt a symptom of Australia’s love affair with Mexican food, which in Mexico is undoubtedly delicious but in Australia falls victim to misappropriation and butchery as the locals make yet another misguided effort at embracing multiculturalism and trying to look ‘worldly’.
Grandma’s is cosy, quaint and rather kitsch. Shame about the people though.
Patently, the food is designed to match the menu and satiate the morons who come here for the wine and/or a feed. Like The Baxter Inn further down Clarence St, Grandma’s started as a quasi-local haunt for those classy types who enjoyed quality liquors and exotic flavours, or who shared a passion for learning about the flavour combinations possible when alcohol is savoured rather than sculled.
Since entering the mainstream, however, it has become a cramped mess of a dungeon filled with young hipsters and middle-aged corporate types pretending to enjoy the flavours of ingredients they’ve never heard of in a cocktail they can barely handle, all in the name of getting drunk quicker and/or bragging about how mainstream they are on Facebook and Instagram.
If you’re a connoisseur and have your interest piqued by the use of quality ingredients to create cocktails with delightfully experimental flavour combinations, please come to Grandma’s. Otherwise, naff off.
Located underground and often guarded by a rather bored-looking bouncer is Sydney’s loudest bar.
There is no other way to describe this otherwise flawless establishment. Such is the combination of music and outrageously loud conversation inside this basement that it renders conversation all but impossible. Of course, it never used to be that way, but what chance did peace and class stand once the magazines and foodblogs came a-calling? Sometimes, on a Thursday or Friday afternoon, you can enjoy Stitch for what it used to be – a safe haven from the bogan hordes above. But don’t get too comfortable, because it’s only a matter of time before corporate obnoxiousness and youthful Instagramming descend the stairs like a toxic fart in a sweaty sauna.
It’s nicer when it’s empty.
Luckily, the drinks menu is of sufficient quality and depth to provide adequate soothing for the sore throat you will inevitably develop once you leave this once-peaceful drinking hole. Whereas other establishments limit themselves by theme and/or liquor, Stitch goes for the other extreme. It has so many varieties of so many beverages that you won’t know where to start. The scotch collection is second only to Baxter’s, sharing all the quality and none of the bulk present in the latter’s list. The hard liquors are equally varied, the cocktail list is seemingly endless, and the rum collection is probably the most extensive in Sydney.
Hands down the best burger and fries in Sydney [image courtesy of Dining With A Stud]
Stitch though is unique in that its food menu is at least as good as, if not better than, its drinks menu. It is that rare specimen in the bar scene – a place where you could turn up just to eat. Indeed, Stitch’s burgers are the best in Sydney. The hotdogs are second only to Goodgod Small Club. The desserts are delectable, and the curly fries are legendary. Pair it with something from the wine list (a showcase of stunning yet affordable local and imported wines) and you have the makings of one of the best nights out you’ll ever have.
It’s just a shame that it’s: a) so loud; and b) so busy.
The newest bar on this list opened in December 2013 to little fanfare and much enjoyment. It is incredibly tiny – one of the smallest bars to open in Sydney – and is buried the furthest down a laneway off Kent Street. It’s not far from The Baxter Inn, which may explain why this place was infested with hipsters and corporate types within a week of its appearance in Sydney’s foremost ‘foodie’ blogs and magazines.
The co-owners built the bar from scratch, recycling materials and learning construction on-the-job as the trio tried to replicate a New Orleans vibe inside a dingy CBD garage. They succeeded too, with tasteful decor matched by an equally tasteful (and tasty) cocktail menu built around the twin pillars of rum and bourbon.
Papa Gede’s, like Grandma’s, is first and foremost a cocktail bar. Unlike Grandma’s, though, they steer clear of the token food offerings and offer instead a limited selection of free nibbles. The wine list is light on variety but surprisingly heavy on quality, and the beer selection is almost non-existent. But what kind of moron would enter a specialist cocktail bar and order anything other than a fantastically-made artisan cocktail?
Quality ingredients, incredible flavours, and a dash of theatre – but there’s absolutely no parking for bandwagons.
This place is also one of the rare few in Sydney that provides a selection of absinthe. Sadly, very few people seem to know of the absinthe menu, and even fewer seem to appreciate the thought and care that has gone into creating the flavour combinations in each of these cocktails. In a bar run by alumni of Grandma’s, Grasshopper, Red Lantern, Wild Rover, Toko, and Pool Club, allowing hipsters and corporate yobbos to besmirch the tone and atmosphere of the place is borderline criminal.
It is even more galling to know that the majority of people who visit Papa Gede’s are simply there because they want to be seen as having been there, and because they couldn’t find a better place in the urban sprawl to conduct their inane conversations. In its first week, Papa Gede’s was the place to be for connoisseurs of fine drinking and artisan cocktails. Since then it has devolved into the clearest demonstration yet of how one’s true passion for a subject is inversely proportional to the size of the bandwagon off which one has jumped.
The final entry on this list is not hidden down a laneway or buried in a Sydney basement. In fact, it’s hidden above the rabble on the roof of a CBD office building (address withheld for obvious reasons), and would have stayed that way but for some intrepid magazine writers and bloggers who stepped into the wrong elevator and whose main goal is clearly to ruin every small bar in Sydney by making them mainstream.
It’s a shame because the Rook exudes class and extravagance – never more evident than in the food menu where more than half the entries involve lobster, truffle, or some combination thereof. If seafood (or wallet-busting) isn’t your thing, grab a burger. If savoury isn’t your thing, grab one of their excellent desserts.
The Rook is high-end but infested with middle-class Australian corporate types.
If food isn’t your thing, the drinks menu should whet your appetite, with a solid selection of Australian and international wines complemented by an equally serviceable cocktail list. That being said, the large selection of imported and local craft beers probably matches better with the food offerings, whilst there’s also a limited cider selection tailored for the one person in every group who insists on being different.
The Rook is accessible only by lift, yet still manages to attract the mosquitos of the bar scene. I am, of course, talking once more about the unsophisticated Australian corporate crowd. The good news is that, being above street level, you are highly unlikely to encounter any hipsters or Instagrammers at The Rook. The bad news is that, being above street level in Sydney, the smugness of your fellow drinkers is going to be unbearable.
Still, at least it isn’t Melbourne.