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Small bars in Sydney

A look at how the small bar legislation has changed drinking in Sydney since it was enacted.

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In Sydney, size matters. Ours is a city that has long thrived on being big: big pubs, big beaches, big tans and big egos.

Up here, the roads are big and the traffic jams bigger. The harbour is huge and the boats even huger. Big identities rule the streets and big ideas have often ended up as even bigger mistakes.

But, lately, Sydney has done the unthinkable. It has downsized.

Food matters ... Owl House owners Paul Loulli, left, and Amir Halpert, right, with chef John Rankin. Click for more photos

Sydney's small bar revolution

Food matters ... Owl House owners Paul Loulli, left, and Amir Halpert, right, with chef John Rankin. Photo: Edwina Pickles

In place of heaving nightclubs have come little wine bars and hidden nooks. Our laneways, previously spots for a big kebab and a big leak, hold basement bars catering for fewer than 50 people and the fringes of the city are dotted with small neighbourhood joints that make Kings Cross's mega-clubs look like gaudy Caribbean cruise ships.

In the four years since legislation was passed to drastically cut the financial and bureaucratic hurdles to opening a small bar, 82 licences have been granted and a further 20 are pending approval.

With it has come a minor cultural revolution. Although still a niche offering, this vibrant undercurrent has been tugging at Sydney's big, brassy image.

"We're a big, beautiful town but we want to be something a lot more than that, I think," says the publisher of Time Out Sydney, Angus Fontaine. "Sydney has for too long been all about identity, and small bars have really started to flesh out the city's character."

Take a walk through the city and you'll now find small bars in shirt shops, hidden basements, converted garages, record stores and old laundromats.

Increasingly you might even find small bars in the 'burbs. Lane Cove, Cremorne, Neutral Bay, Erskineville, St Ives, Cronulla and Marrickville all have their own.

Some, such as the ping-pong bar Dr Pong on Oxford Street, have fallen by the wayside in the past four years.

Others, such as the Baxter Inn on Clarence Street and the Midnight Special in Enmore, have hit the spot and become so popular they have lines out the door.

Their owners – usually young guys who poured cocktails for years but could only ever dream of opening their own place – are the city's new pin-up stars.

And the fraternity of mini-bar tsars is growing, pushing aside the burly publicans who once ruled the city's nightlife. Almost a dozen small-bar owners are opening their second and others are notching up their third, fourth or fifth.

"We're not trying too hard to impress anyone; we're just trying to be ourselves," says Karl Schlothauer, who, with business partner Christophe Lehoux, opened Pocket Bar in an old Darlinghurst garage in 2009 and followed it up with Stitch near Wynyard and Button in Surry Hills. "We're the ones behind the bar, pouring the drinks, cleaning the toilets, emptying the bins," he says.

Small bars such as Shady Pines Saloon, a western-themed watering hole in Darlinghurst, and Eau de Vie, a high-class cocktail bar tucked away in a boutique hotel near Kings Cross, have even spawned the next generation of bar owners.

Max Greco, a former Eau de Vie bartender, has opened his own rock'n'roll-inspired small bar, Vasco, on Cleveland Street, and two bartenders from Shady Pines, Alex Dowd and Jeremy Blackmore, opened Surry Hills' most raucous small bar, Tio's Cerveceria, a year ago.

On Fridays and Saturdays a line snakes around the corner for the Guatemalan owl-themed tequila bar. That's right, they line up to get into a small bar.

"It's crazy," Blackmore says. "I think it's just the uniqueness of what you get when you're inside."

The pair are baffled by the lines but, similar to the most in-demand small bars around town, they've hit on a nebulous recipe for success: hip owners, attractive bartenders, great service, a stylishly cool fitout, fine-grain booze and food that riffs on the local/bespoke trend, and a wild, individual spirit that no mega-pub could replicate.

Dowd and Blackmore, both hospitality workers from way back, built their anything-goes tequila bar with their own hands. It took almost nine months, including grinding concrete floors at 2am (while slightly tipsy, no less), loading up a 1996 Mitsubishi Mirage with building materials and seeing their bank balance sink to $1.08 weeks out from opening.

"When you go to high school, they don't tell you that you can do this kind of thing," Dowd says. "Every time I walk in here I'm still surprised that we're coming in and doing what we love to do."

It's hard to know quite how, and why, the small-bar movement took off so rapidly in Sydney.

Even the lord mayor, Clover Moore – who moved the private members' bill for small bars in 2008 – didn't predict there would be 123 licence applications lodged in just four years. "It just shows that people were really ready for this change," she says. "People were really over the big beer barns [and] all the poker machines. There's really been quite a revolution in the night-time life in Sydney."

Some might dispute her proclamations of a revolution but there have been some discernible cultural shifts in Sydney following the explosion of small bars.

Excellent food has become an integral, almost standard, part of the bar experience now – just go to Love, Tilly Devine, Owl House, 121BC, Freda's or 10 William Street and see for yourself.

Punters have become more forensic, adventurous, savvy, sophisticated and, dare we say, picky ("savviness can be overstretched now that there's so much on offer," says the owner of Freda's, David Abram. "I think it's important we don't take ourselves too seriously"). By the same token, working behind a bar or on the door of a club is no longer a licence to behave like a jerk: bars have been returned to the hands of people who love hospitality and care about their little spot.

The biggest change has been in drinking habits, says the head of the Small Bars Association, Martin O'Sullivan, although the police have said small bars have a negligible impact on reducing alcohol-related violence in the city.

"It's a change in the mentality behind drinking," says O'Sullivan, also the owner of Grasshopper Bar, off George Street, and Boston, a city-centre coffee shop/bar. "It's not about sucking down schooners." Beyond the bars themselves, the movement has fostered a can-do sense among the city's youth. Mathieu Ravier, a French expat who runs a weekly bar night in the Australian Museum called Jurassic Lounge, says young entrepreneurs are returning to Sydney in droves.

"When I arrived in Sydney seven years ago, I remember a lot of interesting people were making plans to move to London, New York or Paris with this idea that nothing they wanted to achieve was going to happen here," he says. "Certainly these days more people are coming back to Sydney to see what can be done. There is more enthusiasm and more optimism. It's a great fertile ground to start something new."

The real sign of success, Moore says, is that the big players are downsizing, too. The city of the super-sized super-pub is going super small.

Justin Hemmes's bar empire, Merivale, recently ripped out the double-level, three-room Tank nightclub in the city and replaced it with a small speakeasy bar, Palmer & Co, and a lavish Chinese restaurant, Mr Wong. Other pubs and nightclubs, such as World Bar in Kings Cross and the Sugarmill Hotel, have converted sections into "small bars" and the "small nightclub" concept has taken off for Goodgod Small Club, a bar/nightclub/diner with a tiny capacity. Dowd and Blackmore say their next venture will be a small nightclub.

Chris Lane sensed that Sydney would embrace downsizing, way back in 2008. He was the first to open a small bar (Small Bar, in Erskine Street) under the new legislation, and larger venues consult him on how to incorporate elements of small bars into their mega-pubs and clubs. He will soon open a wine bar beneath the Fringe Bar on Oxford Street.

"The big players in town know about the small-bar successes," Lane says. "It's the attention to detail and the customer focus. It's like inviting someone into your lounge room."

It's a big departure for a city that loves to live life large, but small bars mean big business.

"Sydney has always been a big, tough town to crack but dangling that carrot has awoken the dream for a lot of young entrepreneurs," Fontaine says. "There's still a minor jungle of red tape but persistence has had its reward."