Stellar: 121BC achieves relaxed sophistication. Photo: Jennifer Soo
A bowl of Nobbys nuts used to be as far as fine dining went in most Sydney's bars. Oh, how the times have changed. These days, I rarely find myself in a bar without seriously good nosh, whether a stellar cheese toastie or seasonal share plates courtesy of the city's best chefs (they're migrating from top restaurants in droves).
In fact, I'm often left questioning whether I've walked into a bar with outstanding food or a restaurant with outstanding cocktails.
The change in small-bar legislation in 2008 undoubtedly put a rocket under the entire bar scene, giving people with cool ideas and genuine talent a chance rather than confining ownership to those with cash in their pockets.
The Old Growler in Woolloomooloo has quality on tap. Photo: Janie Barrett
The proof is in the pages of this year's Good Food Guide, which contains a staggering 56 bars. These are my favourites:
121BC, 4/50 Holt Street, Surry Hills, 9699 1582
The burgers at Mary's get rave reviews. Photo: Sahlan Hayes
Nothing makes you feel more Euro-sophisticated than sitting up at a sleek black bar, being educated on Continental wines by Giorgio de Maria and nibbling at Italian share plates under the dim glow of a modernist chandelier. 121BC was never the bar that opened with fanfare and lines out the door. Rather, it's been a quiet achiever tucked away in a laneway that would be just as happy to serve an old Italian wine lover as hungry hipsters.
Vasco, 421 Cleveland Street, Surry Hills, 0406 775 436
It almost feels like a crime to bypass Eau de Vie and The Roosevelt - both regulars in lists of the world's best cocktail bars - for a crazy little bolthole covered in Foo Fighters photos. But, you can't not love Vasco. Incidentally, owner Max Greco worked at Eau de Vie before branching out on his own with former Roosevelt star Luke Ashton. I think Greco just needed somewhere to put all the rock memorabilia that would no longer fit in his garage. The cocktails go wild on dark spirits, plenty of bitters and sublime egg whitey tops, and the home-made pasta is tops.
Old Growler, 218 William Street, Woolloomooloo, oldgrowler.com.au
The only thing popping up in new Sydney bars more often than good meals and bearded bartenders is Young Henry's beer. This basement cantina, just a kebab's throw from Kings Cross, makes a perfect ale house to showcase the Newtown brewery's fantastic beers. A rotating cast on tap might include anything from a spiced black Koelsch to cloudy cider, and punters can dry hop their own to change the flavour profiles. There's beautiful rustic food to go with it and quaint cocktails.
Mojo Record Bar, basement, 73 York Street, city, 9262 4999
I'm always recommending this place to people. It's the vibe, the music, the dim light, the rowdy Fridays, the all-welcome policy and, unbeknownst to many, the food. Frankie's Pizza may be getting kudos for the best pizza bar but you should know that Mojo will order you takeaway from neighbouring Taglio, some of the best pizza in town. If you like this place, you'll also love Arcadia Liquors in Redfern - another all-rounder that nails the low-key vibe.
Mary's, 6 Mary Street, Newtown
Sure, you can count the menu items on one hand (burgers, chicken and mash), but those darn burgers are all anyone's been talking about. And rightly so. The patty is a mix of chuck, brisket and rump, the cheese is a heart attack waiting to happen and the buns are so good owners Jake Smyth and Kenny Graham of Bodega/Porteno heritage won't tell anyone where they're from. Head to Gardel's Bar or Bondi Hardware for a more extravagant dinner but I guarantee you'll be back here for burger time. Ask for the Last Word cocktail, too.
See the full list of best bars in the Good Food Guide 2014.
The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide 2014 will be available for $10 with The Sydney Morning Herald this weekend, from participating newsagents, Coles and Woolworths, while stocks last. It will also be available in bookshops and online at smhshop.com.au for $24.99 from Tuesday, September 3.