The small-bar movement is spreading its wings. First it was out to Chippendale and Redfern, then up to Mosman and Cremorne on the lower north shore and now further afield to Castle Hill and Lane Cove. And The Baron, a boutique coffee shop by day and trendy dinner-drinks spot by night, could easily show the Surry Hills denizens how it's done.
THIS BAR SMASHES a lot of the stereotypes about the suburbs being dreary, daggy and dead after dark. It's owned by three 24-year-olds, none of whom had any experience in hospitality, who threw caution to the wind last year and decided to open a bar in their 'hood. ''We got drunk one night and decided that there needed to be something like this in the area,'' Ricki Row says. It could have collapsed spectacularly - a week before opening, the trio looked at their bank accounts and found they had so little left that the whole thing would have gone bust if they had opened just a week later - but instead they've got a top little spot that's lively, warm and seductively cool. Everything nearby may be asleep on a Friday night - even the cinema and Castle Towers shopping centre next door is dead - but this place has a buzzy, inner-city vibe, with its industrial-chic decor, rough wooden benchtops, mismatched metal stools and tattooed, Brylcreemed staff talking organic meats and boutique cider. Despite some online reviews canning the absent-minded, too-cool service, we're looked after well all night by a lovely waitress.
COMMUNAL BENCHES AND SMALL TABLES host a mix of groups, most having a small bite to eat and downing wine, beer or whisky. There's no fully equipped bar and no cocktails except a tangy, coconut-infused Sailor Jerry rum, ginger beer and lime concoction ($8). I pick one of seven whiskies, a Lark single malt on ice that is throat-burningly strong, but subtly sweet as the ice melts ($13). We also try some boutique beers - go for the Moa seasonal beers from New Zealand - and good wines. An Ant Moore pinot noir from New Zealand ($11) is my rainy-day pick. With just a few beers, wine and whisky, it's a small drinks list, but it's constantly buoyed by a rotating cast of guest beers and wines. In fact, it's kind of nice not to have to wade through a wine list the size of a novel.
FOR A VERY SMALL BAR with a very small kitchen, this place pumps out some high-scoring dinner dishes. All the relishes and sauces are made in-house and local produce features. Braised oxtail ($26) goes down well, as do the light-as-a-feather smoked Petuna ocean trout paupiettes with tiger prawns and fennel escabeche ($16) and couscous salad with pomegranate ($8). One let-down is the lamb skewers with pita bread, tzatziki and beetroot relish ($23) - the meat is tough and flavourless. But for a quick fix, the Infinity sourdough bread with pate (made by one of the owner's mums), olive oil and butter ($6) is outstanding. The food and drink prices are nudging on annoying inner-city levels, but that seems to be the norm these days.
DON'T EXPECT A LATE-NIGHT RAGER. The bar closes at 11pm and then it's out into the cold, empty streets. Or to the Castle Hill Tavern or delightfully dirty Hillside Hotel. I'm happy to roll on home full of good food, good wine and in the knowledge that good things are afoot in the 'burbs.
The Baron Coffee Shop and Small Bar
Address Shop 461, 4-16 Castle Street, Castle Hill, 0401 498 877
Open Mon-Thu and Sun, 7.30am-4pm; Fri-Sat, 6.30-11pm
YOU’LL LOVE IT IF you’re after a few quiet drinks and a bite to eat.
YOU’LL HATE IT IF you want to party into the night.
GO FOR Lark whisky, smoked Petuna trout, Moa beers.
IT’LL COST YOU wine by the glass, $8-$10; bottled beer, $6.50-$10; whisky, $9-$17; mains, $21-$26.
- 0401 498 877
- Opening Hours - Monday-Saturday 7.30am-4pm, Friday-Saturday 6.30pm-11pm
- Author - Rachel Olding