Best Bars in… Sydney

13th March, 2013 by Paul Wootton

A change in the law led to the renaissance of Sydney’s bar scene, prompting a new wave of top-notch watering holes. Paul Wootton reports.


Sydney’s bar scene has good reason to celebrate

Global financial crisis? Seems someone forgot to tell Sydney. Wednesday is the new Thursday is the new Friday here – the city’s venues teem with life practically all week long. It’s true that there have been some casualties in the fine dining arena, but the majority of Sydney’s cafés, bars and fast casual restaurants remain as popular as a Kylie Minogue performance at Mardi Gras.

The weather helps, of course – when the sun shines, going out becomes a default setting. But there are other factors at play, not least the increasing sophistication of Sydney’s bar scene.

That scene has undergone a revolution over the last four years, ever since a change in the New South Wales licensing laws cut the cost of obtaining a liquor licence from a hefty A$15,000 (£10,000) to just A$500 (£333), for Sydney venues with a capacity of 120 or less.

It was a game-changing move. Suddenly, small operators, budding entrepreneurs and ex-bartenders could open somewhere of their own where they could sell booze. And a lot of them did. Since the Small Bars & Restaurants Bill was approved in July 2008, around 100 “small bars” have launched in the city, adding a creative, dynamic dimension unseen before in the city’s nightlife. Most of Sydney’s current best bars are a direct result of that law change.

Some of these bars have breathed new life into pockets of the city. The CBD district, previously so desolate after dark, has been entirely re-energised with a heap of top-class watering holes including The Baxter Inn, Grandma’s, Stitch and Grasshopper to name but a few.

“Grown-up” drinking

Meanwhile, larger operators have watched the emergence of small bars with interest and adapted their offering, appealing to those wanting a more grown-up drinking experience. Merivale’s multi-million dollar, Prohibition-themed Palmer & Co., which opened this year, is a case in point.

Add to this altered landscape the fact that drinks suppliers have spent millions of dollars on training Australia’s bartenders in the last few years and you can see why Sydney now has a bar sector that’s the envy of much of the world.

One word of caution, though. Reactions of the knee-jerk variety are popular with regulatory authorities here and constantly threaten to erode the development of the industry.

In response to the fatal assault of a teenager in Kings Cross earlier this year, a three-year freeze on liquor licences in the precinct was announced by New South Wales Premier Barry O’Farrell. New legislation will exempt small bars from the freeze, but only if they limit their capacity to 60 customers, which will render any such businesses effectively unviable. The result? We’ll see no new quality cocktail bars in Kings Cross for the foreseeable future.

Even more extraordinary was the response of the authorities to news that a young woman in the UK had to undergo surgery to have her stomach removed after consuming a drink made with liquid nitrogen.

Despite the fact that it was an isolated incident on the other side of the world, the New South Wales and South Australia authorities promptly banned the use of liquid nitrogen in bars pending further investigation.

In Sydney, top-class bars such as The Roosevelt and Zeta have had to rip up their menus and start over. Meanwhile, in the city’s restaurant kitchens, liquid nitrogen’s use continues to be allowed, suggesting that some Aussie politicians couldn’t give a XXXX about being fair to the bar industry.

Which are Sydney’s leading bars? Find out on the next page…

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