With just 24 seats and three staff on the floor, Smalls Bar lives up to its name.
“This is my first venture on my own,” says owner, Jess Ho. “I wanted to open a small venue, so we can give people who come in the attention they deserve.”
After years in the hospitality game, writing about and working in bars and restaurants around Melbourne, Ho is a step ahead of regular first timers. It's the small producers, those really only known by industry insiders, that she wants the South Melbourne venue to feature – behind the bar and in the kitchen.
Ex-Rockpool sommelier Wiremu Andrews has been brought in to curate the wine list. At present, producers from Australia and New Zealand make up around 40 per cent of the offering. The rest is from small-scale vineyards from around the world. Beyond this, Ho and Andrews have kept things pretty simple behind the bar: sticking to classic cocktails and just one beer on tap, which will change with the season.
The “small is better” mantra extends to the menu, with chef Andy Gale (Duchess of Spotswood, St ALi) plating up snack-sized drinking food that includes soy-pickled mushrooms and a rich truffle croque monsieur. He also experiments with a tart of the day and is making the charcuterie in-house.
A virtue of its scale, Smalls has the flexibility to mix up its offering at a moment's notice. If a producer comes in with a case of sea urchins, Gale will work it into the menu. “We're just cooking what we like but trying to refine it a little bit,” Ho says.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the wine bar is its value focus. There's unlimited sparkling water for $4, and an option to “pimp your dish” – i.e. add truffles to anything – for just $10. The Boilermaker Special, an on-tap beer (at the moment it's Mountain Goat Steam Ale) with a shot of Fernet-Branca, comes in at $14.
Interior designer Fiona Lynch, who's had a hand in Prix Fixe and Peter Bouchier Butchers, is behind the fit-out. Like warm hospitality or a perfectly mixed drink, you don't notice the individual elements when they all flow together. However, the details are there – from the marble tabletops, to the intricate parquetry floors – it all echoes Ho's approach: considered but unfussy.
20 Yarra Place, South Melbourne
Mon to Sun 3pm–late