What a ridiculously amazing year for Sydney’s imbibers. The new crop of drinking dens is so strong, we’re disappointed this list is capped at 10. Some of the honourable mentions could easily be bumped up and their inclusion is anything but token. Just know this, Sydneysiders: you’re in outstanding hands, and the city’s bartenders and proprietors have you and your good-time hours covered. We’ll drink to that.
This 20-person, standing-only bar at the end of stumpy Council Place isn’t just one of this year’s great bars, it’s one of Sydney’s best (check out the full list here).
While Cantina Ok is a micro mecca for mezcal – Mexico’s lesser-known spirit – it’s also much more than that. It makes outstanding nuanced cocktails of all sorts, and always delivers interesting conversation and an atmosphere of inclusiveness.
You won’t get a better Margarita in town than here – it’s deliciously balanced and smoky – and everyone behind the bar seems to know everything there is to know about mezcal. They love it and travel regularly to the mother country to bring back bottles of the stuff, mostly made by small, artisanal producers. When they come back they’re armed with more knowledge, and for that, we love them.
This corner Waterloo hotel should be a blueprint for pub makeovers. It had great bones but was a little shady and dingy, and its makeover accentuated the good features – the courtyard, the late-night licence – and threw in some new cool things like an outstanding wine list and tasty snacks.
The on-site bottle-o is run by one of the co-owners, Joel Amos, who also founded minimal-intervention booze retailer Drnks in 2014. You can buy anything from the takeaway shop to have in the pub (add on a $20 corkage fee) and then grab a couple easy-eating tacos from the kitchen.
It’s got a DJ booth and is open until 3am on Friday and Saturday nights, which means you’ll find plenty of people cutting loose on the dance floor. Broadsheet endorses that kind of behaviour.
The owners of this fine establishment describe it as “the first of the small-bar pubs” and we couldn’t agree more. “It’s big enough to know you’ll get a seat and small enough for it to always feel welcoming,” one of the co-owners, Pascale Crouche-McDonald, told Broadsheet in February.
The vibe is super-casual, the drinks superbly made. There’s a dog and kid-friendly courtyard out the back and lots of stuff to look at, such as record covers, art and bric-a-brac. Food isn’t fancy – there are toasties, and cheese and meat plates (all $10), and Pho Phd down the street delivers.
Our headline read “One of the World’s Best Bartenders Has Opened Scout” when this Surry Hills joint landed – and we reckon the hype was warranted. Wine is made by fermenting bananas, watermelon and citrus; peaches are distilled to make gin; and drinks are concocted in a basement using science-y equipment such as an evaporator and centrifuge.
Scout isn’t your average bar. The man behind it is Matt Whiley, and when he moved to Sydney, he decided to open an outpost of his lauded London bar (also called Scout) on the top floor of The Dolphin. Whiley is producing drinks no other Sydney bar is doing, and then serving his creations with the prettiest chiselled ice in the city.
It’s just been announced Scout will shut on December 21 before opening in a new home in 2020, but you can still get your hands on Whiley’s drinks elsewhere. They’re being served at Icebergs Dining Room and Bar, Bondi Beach Public Bar, CicciaBella, The Dolphin and the Icebergs Terrace.
Named after the dive bar in the 1989 Patrick Swayze movie Road House, this subterranean cocktail den has a fur-walled booth (they’re calling it a “kissing booth”), sauna-style timber walls and red-leather booths. The stereo plays smooth tunes that tend towards funk and soul (think Curtis Mayfield and Otis Redding), and the bar serves well-balanced drinks. The cocktail list is succinct and rotates with the seasons, and wines are sourced from P&V Wine & Liquor Merchants, so you can expect vino made with little-to-no intervention. And even though Double Deuce’s neighbours are banks and the ASX, beers are served exclusively out of a can here.
Leafy Pyrmont is where you’ll find Bar Clementine, a wine bar that feels a bit like a bistro you’d find in a European city. While there’s aperitivi to get you started – G&Ts, Campari sodas, Americanos and the feel-good hit of the summer, white port and tonic – it’s all about the wine. Put together by owner Eric Mendoza, who worked as a somm at Porteño and Bloodwood (among others), it’s all about quality, not quantity, with a good mix of natural and non-traditional drops. The by-the-glass list is reassuringly compact for those with decision fatigue, with one sparkling, one skin-contact, one rosé, two reds and two whites.
Nearly as tight is Bar Clementine’s food menu. European-leaning, it’s all about sharing – and all very good for drinking. While the menu changes regularly, on any given day you might order pork-and-veal terrine with bread-and-butter pickles, or a bowl of orecchiette pasta with broccoli, chilli and mint. Sometimes the best places are those that do a few things well – and this is definitely one of them.
It’s theatrical and flamboyant, and serves what we reckon is one of the best drink concepts in the city, the half-pour Martini. There are also mini Negronis and mini Irish Coffees, and a happy hour daily from 4.30pm to 5.30pm where they’re all $5.50.
Maybe Sammy is easy on the eyes, and fills a good-bar gap at the city end of The Rocks. It’s pulled back on some of its more showy drinks in recent times (such as The New Frontier, which came with an inflated bag that was popped to release a whiff of coffee essence), but still has some of the swagger you’d expect from a bar inspired by the Rat Pack.
Another drawcard: Maybe Sammy was the only Aussie bar to make it into the 2019 World’s 50 Best Bars list.
Mary’s Pitt Street
Sydney probably didn’t think it needed another Mary’s joint – we’ve got one in Newtown and a couple in the CBD already – but nonetheless we welcomed the new Mary’s, which quietly opened on Pitt Street in September, with open arms.
It’s more intimate than the others, and rum cocktails are the thing here – although there are also 30 bottles of wine and the friendly bar staff are happy to whip up non-rummy classics like spicy Margs.
Mary’s Pitt Street is as rock’n’roll as its brethren. But unlike at Newtown, you won’t be yelling over Metallica and Slayer – instead, you’ll be chatting over Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan and Interpol. Its burgers are as good as ever, and, as at its Circular Quay venue, it’s riding the vegan wave, so you can order a plant-based version of any item (except the specials). Also ideal is its happy hour: from 4pm to 6pm on weekdays, snap up house reds and whites, pale ales and house spirits for $5.
It sounds gimmicky: to get into The Cumberland you enter through a wooden fridge door within a purpose-built deli and head underground via a spiral staircase. But we’ll forgive the novelty, because this speakeasy-style bar is just that good.
There are 250 whiskies, a well-stocked wine cellar and three cocktail menus. Each drink on the Foraged and Found list uses a native botanical found in the Manly Cove region. The drinks on the 19th-Century County Tipple menu are inspired by “exports” from NSW counties (yes, the state has counties) – Camden’s wool trade, for example, is reimagined into a cocktail made with sheep’s whey vodka, while Georgiana’s dairy and corn industries are honoured in a cocktail with clarified corn-cereal milk, Australian and Jamaican rum, and Islay whisky. The third list – Pre-Temperance Movement Favourites – features classic cocktails such as the Sazerac and the Mary Pickford.
Old-school technology delivers modern delights here: the beer is poured from early-20th-century Bishop and Babcock beer taps, and a custom-made dumbwaiter transports cheese and charcuterie from the deli above. Contrived? A little. But we dig it.
No offence to Leichhardt, but it’s not really somewhere you’d think to go for a drink. That is, until Golden Gully opened. It nails the neighbourhood-bar brief and takes Australiana seriously. The house Old Fashioned is made with myrtle syrup, and the Westside with Poor Toms Gin (from nearby Marrickville) and pepperberry syrup.
Vegetables are the lodestar here, competently steered by chef Emma Evans (who comes from vegan eatery Alibi). There’s confit celeriac; carrot “lox”; braised king oyster mushrooms; and salt and vinegar potato scallops – all great accompaniments to the local bottled and tap beers. If wine’s more your thing, the vanilla burrata with basil oil is a natural sidekick (and there are many Aussie drops to choose from, both by the glass and bottles).
Unlike the best and fairest awards handed out at school, our honourable mentions aren’t merely for participation. These bars excel.
Prince of York is an ambitious two-level city hotspot that serves excellent pasta (among other decent food) and encourages dancing on tables in its “sunken house party” room downstairs (aka Pamela’s). It gets extra points for an ingenious idea: lockers. Stash your gear so you’re free to cut loose on the dance floor.
And then there’s Chippendale’s Saga Bar, which is on its own kooky ride. Enter through the ornate, hand-carved wooden doors to find yourself in a scene straight out of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The drinks are legit though, and there’s something fabulous about the whole package.
Finally, The Old Fitz in Woolloomoolo was given a zhoosh by the same guys who brought us The George reno (the first entry on this list). It’s been restored to its lo-fi glory, and it’s made us fall back in love with the hot-chip butty. “[Chef] Nick [Hill] is doing amazing food and specials that take him three days to prep, and now he’s going to be known as the fucking chip butty guy,” co-owner James Wirth quipped to Broadsheet back in July. He’s not wrong.
Check out Broadsheet Sydney’s best cafe openings of 2019 winners.