What’s the difference between a bar and a restaurant these days? In Sydney the line between the two is becoming increasingly blurred, and at Broadsheet we couldn't be happier about it. This means bars are serving better food and restaurants are serving better drinks, and with it some of the best dishes we’ve eaten this year.
But it’s not just about the food. The bars we loved most in 2017 transported us somewhere else. To a tiki oasis that even David Lynch couldn’t imagine; a live-music venue Sydney knew it always wanted; a villa in Mexico’s Tulum; and to an English pub in the British countryside.
In no particular order, here are our favourite bar openings of the year.
When 121BC announced it would close, a collective sigh reverberated across the city. Months later we’re certain people are as excited as we are of what emerged in its place. The Porteno, Bodega et al team kept a lot of what was loved about the previous venue: the dimly lit and intimate vibe; a stellar wine list; a bottle shop to have in or take away; and a short, sharp menu. The food is less regional Italian fare than what was offered at 121 and more Ben Milgate-style snacks: fries over buttered sardines, lardo on focaccia and spaghetti with an LP’s Quality Meats sausage.
Here’s a sentence no one expected to write: one of Sydney’s best new bars is a Twin Peaks-inspired tiki bar that specialises in minimal-intervention wines. It’s a lot to take in but somehow Pasan Wijesena and the rest of the Earl’s Juke Joint team has made it work, mostly by serving exceptional cocktails and wines, and just making it fun. Flaming cocktail, anyone?
It seems sweets aren’t the only thing the Poernomo brothers do well. Led by Arnold Poernomo (of MasterChef Indonesia judging fame), the three brothers have taken a side step from their ever-expanding Koi chain to open one of Sydney’s smallest small bars. Despite having only a steamer, a torch and a tiny bar space, the brothers have put together an innovative South East Asian-inspired cocktail list and a clever culture-mixing menu that features dishes such as beef-fat glazed ox tongues and smoked eel on toast.
The Lansdowne Hotel
Props to Kenny Graham and Jake Smyth for doing one of the only pub makeovers in Sydney that didn’t push the old clientele out. The menu has been refreshed with a Mary’s touch – there’s a cheeseburger pizza; a fish-finger sambo and a mi goreng – and options are all still largely under $20. They’ve brought back the live music (now upstairs), and behind the bar you can still get a cheap commercial beer, but now also a glass of Tom Shobbrook wine and a number of other interesting minimal-intervention drops. It proves that quality wine, drinks and live music aren’t mutually exclusive. Let’s hope other venues finally realise music-loving punters care about this stuff.
OK, Chula is definitely a restaurant. The reason we’ve included it here is because the bar stocks a mezcal list so comprehensive we need to celebrate it. Don’t know anything about mezcal? That’s fine, the menu is loaded with tips on how things taste, what ABV (alcohol per volume) they are and how they’re made. Also, everything available to diners can be ordered at the bar, so get your mezcal education with a side of modern Mexican food.
Duke of Clarence
No one opens venues like the Duke of Clarence anymore. While everyone was busy chasing what’s new and hip, Mike Enright and Julian Train of Barbershop have gone for something much more old-school – an English pub. The floors, walls and bar are covered in British antiques, the bar stocks 500 UK spirits and a handful of hand-pumped taps, and the menu includes British classics such as Scotch eggs and fish fingers.
Maybe Frank Randwick
The second Maybe Frank venue is like the original in almost every way – great pizza, good vibes –besides what goes on behind the bar. This Maybe Frank has far more space (and a Diageo World Class Bartender of the Year, Andrea Gaudi), so there’s much more capacity to create and innovate. There are two cocktails lists – classic Italians, such as Negronis, Sbagliatos and spritzes, and a second of weekly specials, batched cocktails and a handful of wines and beers. And in keeping with modern-day communication parlance, emojis are used to help describe the drinks’ nuances and flavours.
When a venue opens and the first night is as happening as some of the best bars in town, you know there’s either been a ridiculous level of hype, or it’s hit a chord with the locals. Bart Jr is certainly the latter. It’s one of those rare venues that perfectly captures the balance between comfort (a relaxed fit-out, easy snacks and beers) and innovation (dashi pippies, progressive wines and a different take on prawn toast) – it works for pretty much everyone.
Dear St Eloise
From the owners of Love Tilly Devine and Waterman’s Lobster Co (which this replaces), comes this sophisticated Potts Point wine and tapas bar. Take a seat at the bar and let Matt Swieboda and his cohorts Nate Hatwell and Jasmine Natterer – extraordinary wine nerds – guide you through the 300-strong wine list that includes everything from smashable pinots to funky vine-fermented Mstvane from Georgia. The snacks are great; try the plate of beans with pecorino or confit fennel with fermented chilli and orange.
What began as an over-flow for Buffalo Dining Club has become a destination worth queuing for in its own right. The 1920s-inspired room is slick and smart, as is its 60-deep wine list and seafood-centred snack menu. Like at many progressive new bars there’s a strong focus on organic, biodynamic and minimal intervention wines.
Honourable mention: Where's Nick
It may not pull a crowd for its food offering, but the homey Marrickville bar gets a mention for having an interesting natural wine lists.
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