We’re only halfway through the year but boy, Sydney’s bar scene is sizzling. There’s not really a defining theme here – one you’ll find in a basement, another at the end of a laneway, and many are in the CBD. What unites them is their pursuit for doing things their way, be that concentrating on one booze style, or being the best neighbourhood drinks establishment.
We hesitate not one second before we say this: Cantina Ok! makes Sydney’s best Margaritas. They’re just so deliciously balanced and smoky. But even if you prefer a beer to cocktails, this is still a damn fine place to drink – especially if you’re also a fan of bars that facilitate good conversation.
Cantina Ok! is a micro mecca for mezcal – Mexico’s lesser-known spirit – and everyone behind the bar knows what seems like everything there is to know about it. They love it and travel regularly to the mother country to bring back bottles of the stuff, most made by small artisan producers. When they come back they’re armed with more knowledge and we love them for that.
Find this 20-person, standing-only pretty-as-an-Instagram-photo bar at the end of Council Place, a stumpy laneway in the city. If only it served tacos from a stand out the front; we’d never go anywhere else.
Mary’s Circular Quay
These are the first things you’ll experience: the distinct fuzz of distorted guitars, a giant cabaret-style sign saying “RATPISS”, and the distinct aroma of chips and burgers.
This is a classic Jake Smyth and Kenny Graham venue Mary’s Newtown, the CBD Mary’s takeaway, The Unicorn and The Lansdowne: grungy, loud and fun. What’s distinct to this iteration though is it’s completely vegan-able. Want a Mary’s burger? Try this – it’s one our writer can’t stop thinking about. Want a slab of fried chicken without any chicken? Get the fried cauliflower instead.
And to top it off, we love it because it’s the one place in this part of town you can get a $10 glass of amazing minimal-intervention funkiness by Newtown’s P&V Wine Merchants.
Golden Gully Bar
This bar-restaurant hybrid has been a game changer for Leichhardt, a suburb not known for its great eating and drinking.
It serves Australian booze, and while it rides the all-natural movement it’s not exclusively in that camp. Here the weirder cheese-smelling drops are balanced with relatable classics.
The chef, Emma Evans, has come from Alibi and is posting an almost exclusively veg and vegan menu with many influences, including Indigenous ingredients.
A pub reno is tough because so much can go wrong. But this one was overwhelmingly successful. The Waterloo corner hotel had great bones but was a little shady and dingy, and this makeover accentuated the good things – the courtyard, the late-night licence – but also threw in some new cool things.
It’s open until 3am on Friday and Saturday nights and for several hours before that you’ll find plenty of people cutting loose on the dance floor. We endorse that kind of behaviour.
The owners of this very fine establishment call it Sydney’s first of the small-bar pubs, and we couldn’t agree more. “It’s big enough to know that 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.
Crouche-McDonald co-owns the pub-bar hybrid with Kim Fasher, David Jank and John Archinal. Fasher and Jank make up one half of the team behind other excellent inner-west establishments Arcadia Liquors, Redfern Continental and Ron’s Upstairs, and Archinal used to work at Arcadia. The vibe of those places has been carried across.
The walls are filled with stuff to look at – record covers, art and brick-a-brack – and there’s a dog- and kid-friendly courtyard out the back. There are toasties, and cheese and meat plates (all $10) available. If you’re looking for a drink suggestion, we recommend the Eastside. It’s made with Tanqueray, lime, mint, cucumber and a little sugar, perfectly balanced for good times.
Wine made by fermenting bananas, watermelon and citrus; peaches distilled to make gin; drinks concocted in a basement using science-y equipment such as an evaporator and centrifuge.
Scout isn’t your average bar, and the man driving it is Matt Whiley. He moved from London and brought his lauded bar (also called Scout) to the top floor of The Dolphin in Surry Hills, thus completing the venue’s offering of pub drinks, wine bar, cocktail lounge and restaurant. The hype was real – our headline read “One of the World’s Best Bartenders Has Opened Scout” – but we reckon it was warranted. Whiley is producing drinks no other Sydney bar is doing, and then serving his creations with the prettiest chiselled ice being handed over bars in this city.
Australian native ingredients are important here, and like any decent bar it rides the seasons, meaning drinks come and go. Like the Death Myrtle. This bluish-coloured number was made with calvados, cinnamon myrtle, pink lady and Granny Smith soda and – wait for it – burrata whey. Keep up the good work.
When the owners of Ramblin’ Rascal Tavern told us they were opening a cocktail bar inspired by ’70s erotic film, we never expected this. Yes, there is a fur-walled booth (they’re calling it a “kissing booth”) at the entrance and a plush pink bar, but otherwise it’s all class – sauna-style timber walls, red-leather booths and original underground fittings.
Cocktails are 10 in number and rotate with the seasons. Beer is exclusively out of a can and wines, 16 of them, come from natural-focused dealers P&V Wine Merchants. The tunes are smooth and tend towards funk and soul, artists like Curtis Lee Mayfield and Otis Redding, and the food is in keeping with the ’70s theme: cheese cubes, cabanossi and Jatz crackers.
This is a rare wine bar that actually feels like a bar, not a restaurant. The space is intimate, with a marble bar ideal for long visits or a pop in, and a drinks list that proudly professes it’s sans cheap wine. That doesn’t mean it’s only for inner-city property barons – it uses the word “cheap” here to mean low quality.
The owner, Swilhouse (Baxter Inn) and Porteño alumni Eric Mendoza (who also runs cafe Clementine’s up the road), has put together a progressive list of mainly local and occasionally French drops, and an accompanying cheese and charcuterie-led menu that’s got more culinary influences than options. The egg with gochujang (fermented Korean chilli paste) and sea urchin is a flavour-packed one-bite snack, and the lamb backstrap, kipfler, enoki and “poor man’s caviar” (fish roe) is like a fancy meat and three veg.
The Old Fitzroy
Woolloomooloo’s beloved pub has been given a slight zhoosh by the same guys who brought us The George (above) and The Duke, and they’ve taken the same softly-softly approach.
While they’ve made minimal changes to the fit-out (a bit of new paint; lounges and old-school charm remain intact), the menu has received a complete overhaul thanks to ex-Quay and Sepia chef Nicholas Hill and his menu of Scotch eggs, pigs head and other traditional, meaty British specials.
One dish that’s already gained ground in the instant-classics stakes is a deconstructed hot-chip butty, made with a mountain of thick chips, salted butter, two slices of white bread and a selection of optional extras including beef dripping, mushy peas and curried egg. “Nick’s 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 told us before laughing.
It’s theatrical, flamboyant and serves what we reckon is one of the best drink concepts: half-pour Martinis. Even better, between 4.30pm and 5.30pm Tuesday to Saturday, those half pours are half price ($5), along with $5 mini Negronis and $5 mini Irish coffees.
Maybe Sammy has easy-on-the-eyes looks and sits on the city edge of The Rocks filling a good-drink gap in that part of town. It could be accused of being a little too dramatic. The New Frontier, for example, is served alongside a clear inflated bag that’s popped on arrival to release a whiff of coffee essence and a scratchy that could win you a free bar snack. But to be fair, the bar is channelling the Rat Pack.
Honourable mention: One Drop Brewing
This doesn’t really fit this list because it’s a brewery not a bar, but Botany’s One Drop Brewing is independently owned, ambitious and (oddly but not aggressively) reggae themed. It took over a converted paper warehouse and is a light-filled and easy-going place for a good afternoon session.
If you want some more good stuff to check out, read Sydney’s Best New Cafe Openings of 2019 … So Far and Sydney’s Best New Restaurant Openings of 2019 … So Far.