Sydney's top 20 bars 2018

Sustainability rules, OK? Plastic straws were as popular in 2018 as a fly in the kitchen on Christmas Day and giving single-use slurpers the flick was the biggest bar trend of the last 12 months, bolstered by campaigns such as The Last Straw and Sydney Doesn't Suck.

Besides looking straight-up ugly sticking out of a drink, the little suckers are one of the most common plastics found in our oceans. Fingers crossed that by 2019 the turtle-chokers will join Tia Maria and ashtrays on the list of "things you never see on bars any more". I'd also like to witness an end to those dinky pegs used to attach garnishes to glass rims and make my $24 cocktail look like a school kid's craft project. See also: Persian fairy floss. Ugh.

Poor quality tonic water is on the way out, too, thanks to Australian brands like Strangelove, Capi and PS Soda creating affordable alternatives to post-mix mixers. The craft spirit drinker of 2018 knows there's little point ordering a gin with 48 botanicals if those native berry flavours are destined to be dulled by flat Schweppes.

Yes, gin. I don't know how many more brands and limited edition bottles our bar shelves can handle. It's possible that future hooch historians will regard 2018 as the year Australia reached peak gin, though. A lot of new distilleries need to sell gin to make coin while their whisky spends five or so years ageing in a barrel. Single malts created during the local distillery boom that began a few years ago are beginning to stir and there's a good chance we'll see gin sales plateau next year and the popularity of Australian whisky rise with force.

Of course, I could be incredibly wrong on this – like the time I called "peak craft beer" in 2013. A thousand One-Fifty Lashes for my sins. The domestic brewing scene has grown massively in the last five years and we're seeing our bars stocked with loads more beers brewed for the Australian climate such as refreshing lagers, sours and goses. The term "craft", however, is firmly on the way out – it's all about "independent beer" these days, folks. Look for the Independent Brewers Association seal on taps and tinnies at your local, introduced in May to make things easier for punters keen to know if the beer they're drinking is from an indie brewer or one of the multinational companies posing as "craft".

Marques cocktail at Bar Topa.
Marques cocktail at Bar Topa. Photo: James Brickwood

In other trends-based news, Aquavit – that delicious caraway-flavoured Nordic spirit – is popping up with increased frequency in cocktails around town. Sydney bar PS40 has even teamed up with guys at Never Never Distilling Co. to release its own version of the aromatic liquor.

Natural wine has continued its world domination, artisan vodka has gone from strength to strength, and bars stamping block ice with their logo is now a thing. The latter may or may not have something to do with creating Instagram content. (It definitely does.)    

Here are Sydney's top 20 bars for 2018. There were few new bars to be properly excited about, especially when it came to cocktail-focused venues. Maurice Terzini's Bondi Beach Public Bar and Mat Lindsay's bar-restaurant hybrid, Poly, were the two hottest openings. The lack of exciting new bars might have something to do with lock-out laws, perhaps it's because the market is so bloody competitive that launching anything new is high-risk business.  

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Regardless, the old favourites are on fire and a few new guys are cracking. From the ocean to our sun-dappled suburban streets, this is still the best city in the country for a drink. Cheers, Sydney, you beautiful beast.

Archie Rose

It's exciting times ahoy for Sydney's first independent distillery in more than 150 years, as its initial batch of aged whisky waits to be released in mid-2019. Meanwhile, head of hospitality Harriet Leigh runs a tight cocktail game at the bronze-on-timber bar, well-suited to an Archie Rose G&T and sardines with Iggy's bread. It's not all spirits though, with a considered wine and beer selection making the venue a beaut all-rounder. A boilermaker of Grifter Pale Ale and Starward whisky is how you start or end a night in style.

85 Dunning Avenue, Rosebery, 02 8458 2300, archierose.com.au

Poly is a new subterranean walk-in wine bar in Surry Hills.
Poly is a new subterranean walk-in wine bar in Surry Hills. Photo: Jessica Hromas

Bar Topa

It's been an age since Sydney had tapas to be excited about, so kudos to Justin Hemmes for bringing the sunny flavours of San Sebastian to the CBD. Chefs Lauren Murdoch and Jordan Toft have collaborated on a simple menu featuring pipis, sweet peppers and a steak sandwich a la plancha. Tables and chairs? No. Miniature three-sip martinis? Absolutely. Just be aware that ordering "definitely the last one" is easy when you're only committing to half a drink. You'll be wrestling inflatable swans in the Ivy pool before you know it.

4 Palings Lane, Sydney, 02 9114 7368, merivale.com.au/bartopa

The Baxter Inn

Australia's number one whisky bar thanks to more than 800 single malts, blends and ryes, plus a crack team of staff who know what they're pouring and do it with panache. Whether you're jonesing for a rare Speyside, rich stout or perfect Manhattan, Baxter knocks it out of the basement every time. Make an afternoon of it and visit the Duke of Clarence next door for cask ales and a focus on Irish drams. The amount of whisky in this alleyway is eye watering.

Crispy fish sandwich at Bondi Beach Public Bar.
Crispy fish sandwich at Bondi Beach Public Bar. Photo: Jason Loucas

152-156 Clarence Street, Sydney, 02 9221 5580, thebaxterinn.com

Bentley Restaurant + Bar  

Do you like cult wine and nifty snacks such as angasi oyster heightened with finger lime and scampi caviar? Do you like drinking balanced cocktails in a beautiful setting? If yes, then come on down to Bentley's refurbished bar, now featuring drinks boss Bobby Carey on martini duty. Longtime Bentley creative collaborator Pascale Gomes-McNabb has transformed the bar to make it sleeker than ever before with light and dark in all the right places. The best spot for a Ganevat chardonnay going.

27 O'Connell Street, Sydney, 02 8214 0505, thebentley.com.au

Bondi Beach Public Bar.
Bondi Beach Public Bar. Photo: Christopher Pearce

Bondi Beach Public Bar

It could probably pass for a streetwear store if you replaced the fridge of pre-batched cocktails and sustainable wine with a clothes rack, but Maurice Terzini's tribute to surf rock and '80s pub culture is a thong-friendly Aussie boozer all the way. Squish burgers and White Russians are the new taste of Sydney summer while the new Bonnie's Food + Wine opens inside BBPD this week. Expect more natural wine at the venue-inside-a-venue plus simple plates like marinated tuna with peppers, shallots and lemon.

203/180 Campbell Parade, Bondi Beach, 02 9132 5777, bbpb.com.au

Bulletin Place

Daily changing cocktails made with market-fresh fruit are the drawcard at this tiny bar straddling the CBD and Circular Quay, though expert-level bartenders also sling pitch-perfect classics and suggest long-forgotten drinks. Sure, the spirits selection isn't as broad as other Sydney bars, but this place is all about ultra-precise pairings and quality over quantity. Arrive early and nab a comfy banquette that's very hard to leave.

Fred's Bar in Paddington.
Fred's Bar in Paddington. Photo: Supplied

Level 1, 10-14 Bulletin Place, Sydney, 02 8006 8833, bulletinplace.com

Charlie Parker's

This sandstone-walled bar beneath Fred's is big on the gospel of local, seasonal and botanical. Fruit-forward cocktails might feature strawberry gum, toasted wattleseed or bee pollen, but a good bottle of red is all you need to enjoy the homey space. Maybe some wood-fired flatbread with whipped lardo, too. And perhaps pork and veal meatballs invigorated by marjoram, and a mate you like enough to share them with. The Bird is the word.

Basement, 380 Oxford Street, Paddington, 02 9114 7332, merivale.com.au/charlieparkers

The Good Food Guide 2019.
The Good Food Guide 2019. Photo: Supplied

Continental Deli Bar Bistro

Can we please have a neo-trad delicatessen and cocktail bar like this on every leafy Sydney street? Bartender Michael Nicolian leads Team Porteno's tinned martini and sandwich hotspot, and the Hawaiian shirt-sporting top bloke can fix you any drink fit to be poured under the Newtown sun. A CBD outpost is expected to open sometime very soon, which  means we're just a little bit closer to that dream of a Continental on every corner.

210 Australia Street, Newtown, 02 8624 3131, continentaldelicatessen.com.au

The Dolphin Hotel

Chef Monty Koludrovic leads the Aussie-Italo kitchen at this funland of natural wine, beautiful hand-stretched pizzas and $2 ponies of ice-cold beer. Head sommelier Marie-Sophie Canto is 100 per cent committed to every guest having a cracking time and the ongoing aperitivo series showcases the most exciting chefs cooking today. It should also be noted that this is one of the few places you'll find a tap of Tasmania's much loved Boag's XXX Ale on the mainland. VIP: Very Important Pub.

412 Crown Street, Surry Hills, 02 9331 4800, dolphinhotel.com.au

Earl's Juke Joint

How great are old Russian butcheries repurposed for serving tinnies and New Orleans-inspired tinctures? Swamp rock and hip-hop pump at this good-time bolthole where owner Pasan Wijesena's tikis have been the cause and solution of inner west hangovers for the past five years. Now with bonus Radikon and petillant-naturel party times.

407 King Street, Newtown

Jacoby's Tiki Bar

The Earl's team double-down on their zombie love at Sydney's only dedicated tiki bar named after a Twin Peaks psychiatrist. Hawaiian shirts aren't essential to the dress code but they probably should be, especially when you're getting stuck into the Scorpion Bowl – a boozy basin of cognac, rum, gin and citrus, served on fire with a rainbow of straws. The rattan-walled room packs out on the weekend so arrive early if you want to claim a table.

154 Enmore Road, Enmore

Love, Tilly Devine

A national treasure since it opened in the old Best Cellars stockroom in 2010, LTD is a cheerful patchwork of old bricks, hanging pot plants and cheese. A soft relaunch in 2017 saw a renewed focus on thirst-quenching, fist-pumping, Australian wine with new-wave producers knocking bottle necks with classic labels. Follow the bar's Instagram account to keep up to date with regular winemaker and guest sommelier takeovers.

91 Crown Lane, Darlinghurst, 02 9326 9297, lovetillydevine.com

Maybe Frank

A pizzeria, yes – and a very good one at that – but this margherita-slinging eatery also delivers bittersweet Italian cocktails that are one of Sydney's worst kept secrets. Expect limited edition "nonna" specials like a highball of mancino vermouth secco, grappa nonino, tonic and an olive. Nonna knows how to drink. Now also in Randwick and rocking all-you-can-eat pizza nights every Tuesday so get on your bicicletta and get there pronto.

417-421 Bourke Street, Surry Hills, 02 9357 3838, maybefrank.com

Monopole

Nick Hildebrandt's otherworldly talent for sourcing rare and exceptional wine is on full display at Bentley Group's sophisticated bar where terroir is king. This mood-lit meeting hub for locals and grape boffins also provides house-cured charcuterie and a full menu of smart share-plates if one glass becomes two magnums. Cheese is available late into the night should you have an 11pm hankering for riesling spatlese and a semi-hard sheep's milk.

71A Macleay Street, Potts Point, 02 9360 4410, monopolesydney.com.au

Poly

This bar and restaurant from Ester's Mat Lindsay is one the year's hottest openings and by golly there's a lot of beautiful and big-flavoured snacks on the pass. Grilled strawberry clams with bottarga oil, say, or a single king prawn slathered with duck egg yolk cured in salt and sugar. Co-owner and sommelier Julien Dromgool runs the drinks component with a razor sharp list featuring minimal intervention wines, junmai sake and many happy surprises.

74-76 Commonwealth Street, Surry Hills, 02 8860 0808, polysurryhills.com.au

PS40

The "PS" stands for Pop Soda, you know. Wattleseed, cola nut and Australian ginger find their way into house-made craft sodas, which in turn find their way into the bar's "cellar door" and aromatic cocktails. Whisky and lemonade is a bracing time, the latter smoked by LP's Quality Meats, and the alcohol-free creations provide one of the most delicious times you can have teetotalling in the city.

Shop 2, 40 King Street, Sydney, ps-soda.com

Ramblin' Rascal Tavern

The original home of "shit tinnies" and top-shelf cognac. The Rascal heroes can also mix a killer classic and the dive bar-channeling boozer gets rowdy with live rock'n'roll every Thursday. Mary's delivers fried chicken on request, which is exactly what you want to eat spread out in a booth with Emu Export and brandy. Dave Grohl was such a fan he booked the joint out for a Foo Fighters after-party last year. Fact.

199 Elizabeth Street, Sydney, ramblinrascaltavern.com

Restaurant Hubert

New York's 1930s Cafe Society lives on at this party-time bunker of French wine and caviar in the financial district. Start with a "roe boat" above the velvet-draped dining room before hitting the bar for Languedoc, steak frites and all the pastis. A champion service team pulls out all of the stops, all of the time, and would love to serve you a Normandy burger from the bar menu, glistening with gruyere and thirsty for a big lug of the Loire.

Basement, 15 Bligh Street, Sydney, 02 9232 0881, restauranthubert.com

Shady Pines Saloon

Sydney's premier julep-muddling honky-tonk hoedown house. Sundays are a boot-scootin' belter when live country music kicks in and you can sink boulevardiers surrounded by vintage Marlboro signs and taxidermy moose heads the size of Texas.

Shop 4, 256 Crown Street, Darlinghurst, 0405 624 944, shadypinessaloon.com

The Unicorn

A prototype pokie-free pub that's all about great value food showcasing producers such as Rangers Valley beef and Borrowdale free-range pork. There's a beer garden with shaded spots suited for smashing natural Aussie wine (it's domestic bottles only here) and a pub schnitzel that sets a national standard. Dessert is a game of darts.

106 Oxford Street, Paddington, theunicornhotel.com.au

The Good Food Guide is in its second year as a national book, with hats awarded across Australia. The Good Food Guide 2019 will be launched on October 8 with our presenting partners Vittoria Coffee and Citi, and will be on sale from October 9 in newsagencies, bookstores and via thestore.com.au, RRP $29.99.