DIVING INTO THE DEPTHS OF THE SMALL BARS SYDNEY
The revolution is upon us! The red light district is on code red and the fancy pants bars refuse entry but there are other places to get your cocktail fix. Deep in the darker parts of Sydney there is a phenomenon that is only know to a few arbiters like myself. They are the small bars that are taking over the city and changing the drinking culture of this dangerous sin city.
Now for those of you internationally, Sydney has been changed by the government to be safer from alcoholic violence that has occurred in the main drinking areas of Sydney. The government has changed the way Sydney siders drink by curbing the violence in the hot spots by creating lockouts and non-service period of alcohol. But now on with the show.
This piece is about my favourite strip since I’m to old for the sinful strip of the golden mile that is called Kings Cross. Unlike your standard stereotypical bar and club that have the common local tapped and imported beers, house spirits and mixers, house wines of two colours, house sparkling, champagne and that woefully small cocktail selection that makes you feel like an idiot when you order them at the bar shouting over the hip hop/rock/DJ remix that is just radio music mashed together on a laptop and turntable switchboard.
These magical little kingdoms relish in their individual style and influence of the classy old cocktail bars from yester year and luxury hotels by creating cocktails both classic and new-and-improved combined with a selection of beers and ciders from unheard of breweries that have a better flavour than the afore mentioned bar stereotype selection as the same with wines, sparkling wine, and spirits. They also have menus that put standard bar food to shame, move over crisps make way for the cheese and ham platter!
York Street has transformed from the walking alternative to catching train/bus/taxi from Wynyard to Town Hall stations, into the dapper happening place after the lights go out. As York St is the major roadway for many a city bound traveller, whether headed to The Rocks, King Street Wharf, Cockle Bay and Barangaroo (soon we hope), it is the perfect place to start one’s night out be it an individual adventure or a quest with a group of friends. The only problem with these little diamonds of a gin joint is that they are hidden from sight unless you know where to go.
Now to set the mood turn on ‘Can I Kick It?’ by A Tribe Called Quest or ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ by Lou Reed. You need that kicking bass line and drum beat to deal with this piece of poetry.
I have been to many of these bars before but not as a starter, snacker or just to kick back and relax place as that’s what the small bars are all about. After organising a small group of friends to show up on a Saturday night but as the night planned was cold and rainy, only the most veteran drinker showed up, my mate Pat.
Now depending on which side of the bridge that you enter the city depends on which small bar you start or finish with on York St. So we’ll start with the come from the north side. After leaving the bridge from the north, on the bridge side, the first small bar is Uncle Ming’s. Look out for the small signage or look for Roman Daniels as the entrance is right next-door and down the corridor. It is a hard place to see as the signage is small and the security guard doesn’t look bouncerish which makes you rethink his position at the door. If it wasn’t for my mate’s keen nose for dumplings we would of walked right by.
This bar like most small bars has some stairs to get there so wear sensible shoes if you don’t want to slip up or down. Enter the roaring 20’s opium den themed small bar. The style is magnificent to lay eyes on as the Asian heritage of Sydney in on show with many cocktails named after Chinese gangsters. On top of the cocktails are selections of Japanese beers, Korean spirits, sake, whiskey and other Asian choices to entice one’s palate to the orient or have a tea pot cocktail. While you sip your way through the Silk Road, have a snack of dumplings to stave off hunger.
So my mate and I sat down and settled into this starter. We ordered prawn dumplings, pork dumplings and chicken wings to nibble on to be washed down with apple nikkia. Everything eaten was spectacular as were the drinks because we had to go back for seconds. But we had to move on as the night was young. From Uncle Ming’s we headed down the street to Stich, which like Uncle Ming’s is easy to miss but can be seen if you look for the sewing machines behind the glass shop front or ask the bouncer when he’s there on the weekend. And don’t be like my mate who tripped over the singer sewing machine doorstop right in front of the bouncer, as this didn’t go down very well to start at the second place.
After heading through the sewing machine entrance and down the stairs grab a bar stool at the bar and read the cocktail list or ask the bartender for their favourite. If a stool isn’t your style then there are booths in the back or main tables and chairs around. If you’re there with a special someone ask one of the wait staff if there is a table or a booth free. Don’t worry if you bang your knees on a Singer sewing machine, as this bar is themed like an old 20th century tailoring factory. The cocktails are great like the atmosphere down there. If you catch the eye of the waitresses you don’t even have to leave your seat.
So my mate and I set up at the bar. We asked for a Bettye Lavette but the bar tender told us they were out of chocolate liqueur so used Montenegro instead. It was good as was the soft tacos and curly fries we got to eat as well. Eating at the bar brought back memories of eating in the states at a diner. After dinner drinks was a couple of tumblers of Knobs Creek bourbon on the rocks. This burned all the way down my throat and I spoke like Louis Armstrong for about half an hour before I got used to it, much to the delight of my mate. As before at Ming’s we headed off to the next place with our bellies full.
A little down the way is one of my favourite haunts being Mojo Record Bar. This little hole in the wall is off the back of Mojo Record Store where you can buy the old and crisp sounding vinyl records and have a drink after such a purchase or just go straight through to the bar. After walking through the hallway to the bar, passing the record store, you will find this little den of desire very pleasing with the vibe of an old school bedroom with music posters everywhere, nothing from the 90’s and beyond here. Mojo regularly changes their beer list so ask for the best drop from the friendly bar staff or dive into the selection of spirits and music themed shots and cocktails. If you’re an adventurous spirit, ask the bar staff for something nasty and be prepared for a cocktail that will knock your socks off with deliciousness.
Now at Mojo’s we headed into the main bar. Spying a friend and bar tender extraordinaire Dan, we sat at the bar and ordered what I asked for ‘something dirty’ and a two birds dark ale for my mate who wanted to slow down. A beer on the bar and a mezcal based martini, we settled down to chat over the pumping tunes and energy of the bar. The smokiness of the drink wasn’t as harsh as the bourbon at stich but it was wonderful. As the bar was filling up we decided to head off to the next place to let someone else to take our spots. The small bars are good like that as it has just a friendly vibe.
On the opposite side of the road of Mojo is the York Trading & Co. This little gem is an American style inspired bourbon bar. The selection of bourbon, whiskey and traditional cocktails are impressive as are the small selection of wines. The food is small but delicious and it compliments the drinks nicely. Depending on how busy it is, Friday after work it’s usually packed to the rafters, you can have a chat with the bar tenders and ask what’s the best introductory cocktail or wine or whatever floats your boat!
The trading post is a bit deceiving. Unlike the other places there were no steps! Pat and I enjoyed no more tramping up and down to get a drink at the bar! After perusing the cocktail list which is a must. Pat decided on another dark beer while I had an ultimate dark and stormy. These drinks were to die for just like everywhere else. We walked round the corner of the small entrance and bar to the large backroom and grabbed a booth. As always Pat sampled my cocktail to his knowledge said it was worthy to be drunk at again. The friendly wait staff passed us menus and water, which we read and drank. As we had already eaten, all we could look and salivate over the tasty sounding dinners. We bother vowed after we finished our drinks, to return and eat at a later date.
Another personal favourite of mine Spooning Goats or The SG. On the York Trading & Co. side you will find this quirky small bar, with Star Wars space ships, He Man tap huggers, goat photographs, connect four games, old school table-top arcade game station and Sega Saturn in the corner. Once more down the stairs and directly opposite a convince store, you will enter the home of some of the best classical inspired cocktails ever created. If you’re there early enough you can munch on the home made pasties or just read the cocktail list for the classics or the new flavours that are on the board for the magician of a mixologist to concoct in his cauldron. While you wait you can check out the modern art under the hammer or play a game or two of connect4. With drink in hand head to a couch or the games and take a load off in the That 70’s show style settings.
Pat and I trooped down the stairs once more to our dismay only to return to our favourite haunt of York St. Once at the bar we had some of our favourites mine being a Mayan mule and Pat’s old fashioned. With drink in hand we sat at a table and played several games of connect four or one of the many variants there. As we both started cheating we moved onto the old Sega Saturn to play some Sonic the Hedgehog. After much trash talking and banter we moved onto the last stop of the tour.
On the Mojo side of York St once more you will find The Barber Shop. The front is an actual barbershop and you have to walk through it to go up stairs to the bar. Now this gin joint has a different vibe as you can get a shave and a haircut and a drink or just a drink if you prefer. With a small choice of wines, beers and ciders but primarily this is a gin joint boasting over 30 different varieties to spice up your classic G and T. Whiskey is also on the menu with Irish, single malts, blended and classic American style. Food wise its snack city with cheese or ham platters. Hopefully by now the dapper gentleman and lady have emerged neatly trimmed, short back and sides.
We headed across the street to The Barber Shop. As we entered we saw the barber chairs and the leather straps used to sharpen cutthroat razors. Unlike the other places we had been, the place was jumping and packed. We found one stool and asked for the cocktail list before settling on a silver fox and gin sour. We both noticed the rear exit was packed with what Pat thought was a toilet line only to turn out to be another small bar. We looked back at the cocktail list wondering about a cutthroat razor shaves and haircut that came with a beer. As midnight drew closer we left the Barber Shop comparing notes and tastes of all the places we had visited. I have no doubt we’ll be visiting them all again very soon.
Each small bar offers its own style though very similar all are different and have different vibes. Some might be the flavour of the month while others turn into staples of a night out but all of them have to be visited in turn. A night out for all of these places was a great idea and with the knowledge of these places I can now recommended them to friends and family. The only problem was this was only York Street and there are many, many more small bars in Sydney to explore.
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