That cosmo feeling

Sister act ... Polit Bar owner Mary-Jane Liddicoat and food and beverage manager Emily Liddicoat.
Sister act ... Polit Bar owner Mary-Jane Liddicoat and food and beverage manager Emily Liddicoat. Photo: Melissa Adams

It feels like a living room. Not your living room - someone else's. Someone with a keen eye for detail, a healthy wallet for decorating and just the right taste in food, drink and not-too-loud music. It looks like it could be in Sydney or Melbourne, but it's not. It's a new breed of bar, and it's happening in Canberra.

Over the past 12 months, there have been more than a handful of smaller, funky, casual venues open across the inner north, city and inner south (think Treehouse, Honkytonks, Shorty's, Alchemy, the Loft, Polit Bar, and more).

They're filling a space somewhere between pubs, nightclubs, cafes, and restaurants, and they're occupying it with a lot of style, charisma, and an emphasis on casual quality. They're somewhere you can go for excellent food, cocktails, and wine, but without the burden of strict booking times and white linen, or the interference of deafening music.

The Loft in O'Connor aims to attract a slightly different crowd to the Duxton downstairs.
The Loft in O'Connor aims to attract a slightly different crowd to the Duxton downstairs. Photo: Supplied / Jez Rozdarz

David Quinn, the owner and manager of the Loft in O'Connor, admits a lot of the inspiration is coming from the plethora of smaller venues that have carved out a strong niche in the Sydney and Melbourne markets over the past decade. But Canberra has developed its own style.

Quinn, who cut his teeth in Canberra's bars in the 1990s before leaving for the bright lights of Sydney's hospitality scene, returned to the capital 12 months ago to set up the Loft above the Duxton. He says a lot has changed in recent years.

''Gone are the days where people go to Sydney and say, 'All right, I'm going to open a bar down here [in Canberra] that's the same as that one [in Sydney]', because people realise that you can't do that down here. You've got to make sure you still stay true to your roots, that you immerse yourself in Canberra society and the people in general down here.''

Fitting ... Marti McGregor's Japanese slipper.
Fitting ... Marti McGregor's Japanese slipper. Photo: Melissa Adams

The Loft is Quinn's tribute to that capital spirit. He stripped back the space to expose Yarralumla red bricks and raw timber ceiling frames. He then worked to source much of the furniture and fittings locally to retain an authentic, rustic feel.

But it takes more than decor to generate the sort of warmth and atmosphere that will bring customers back. Quinn says the whole point of this style of venue is to provide quality and comfort without restriction - and that needs to come through in every facet of the establishment, from the fitout to the food and service.

''It's just the casual side of things, but it's quality as well. You come to somewhere like this for the quality of the food, the quality of the drinks, the quality of the wine list, and the service. So you get all that top-quality service and you're not forking out $100 a head,'' he says.


''I think a lot of younger people are going out. We try to tap in to that 25 to 35 age bracket here - even up to 50 upstairs. And they don't want to go to the restaurants where they book in and they're locked in to a 7 o'clock sitting … they want to be able to come and relax. People come and go and just have it a lot more casual than it was before.''

Casual is the feel that Mary-Jane Liddicoat is going for on the other side of town at Polit Bar, upstairs in Manuka. Liddicoat comes from a family of restaurateurs and publicans, but her own background is in the public service - as a diplomat based in Asia - ''wining and dining'' and organising diplomatic events. When she opened Polit Bar in mid-July, she aimed to bring some of that hospitality to Canberra.

''Traditionally, people would entertain at their homes in the ACT, but there's quite a lot of burden on the person who's hosting. We created a place, and I'm sure the others are doing the same, where you can invite all those people who are of a similar vibe to come and hang out and have fun, and there's no burden on you to play the host,'' she says.

The space is intimate and the music turned down low to allow for easier conversations. They offer table service - unusual in Australian bars these days - and a wide variety of cocktails that are handmade to taste by the amicable Marti McGregor. With bookcases of political literature and menus wrapped in old government pamphlets, the theme is made to help Canberrans feel at home.

''This is about just recognising Canberra as the hive of politics since 1927, and every national capital that is of age really needs to have a politically themed bar,'' she says. ''We just thought it would be fun because there wasn't one. And it's not meant to be taken seriously. Some guests ask whether we're on one side or the other - we're on any side that's funny.''

While they're already trading - even offering cocktail-making masterclasses every second Wednesday - the bar will officially open with the polling booths at 8am on September 7, and Liddicoat says they'll spend the day poking good-natured fun at the political event of the year.

In Civic, on the oft-neglected Akuna Street two doors down from Transit Bar, another tiny space is being converted with big hopes. Sarah Singh, the 26-year-old behind the basement bar and restaurant Digress, is in the final stages of the fitout of the aptly named Mini Bar in the old Ticketek shopfront. It's a project that she believes will succeed based in part on the fact that it's so small, creating a funky, exclusive niche that taps into Canberra's desire for coffee during the day and cocktails at night.

''During the day, it will be quite a trendy cafe; at night, it will have a sort of late-night dessert bar, and it will have dessert and cocktails, which is not very common in Canberra,'' she says.

Complete with a Mini Cooper bonnet and grill on the wall behind the bar, multicoloured ceiling panels, and a menu featuring ''jelly-tinis'' and signature Indian-Euro fusion dishes, the venue will be linked with the larger space downstairs, but will provide a counterpoint to the basement feel of Digress.

''We can have more of a nightclub atmosphere downstairs, then people, if they don't want the loud music, can come up here to be a bit more relaxed and chilled out,'' Singh says.

Back at the Loft - one level above, but a world away from, one of Canberra's more traditional pubs - Quinn says survival and success for this new breed of bar will require originality, an understanding of the local culture, and a commitment to quality.

''The more great places that open, the more we need to make sure we're doing a great job - an excellent job. You can't do mediocre down here because people won't come back.''

Location of new bars

POLIT BAR: 8 Franklin Street, Manuka,

MINI BAR: 11 Akuna Street, Civic,

TREEHOUSE: Sydney Building, Civic,

HIPPO CO: (relaunch) 17 Garema Place, Civic,

ALCHEMY: 17 Franklin Street,

>>  Hamish Boland-Rudder is a staff reporter.