In Sydney, five-star restaurants hide behind the facade of an '80s salon, Inner West bars skulk behind butcher store glass, a natural wine boutique sells funky oranges behind the veneer of an old milkshake shop. It’s a city that doesn’t want to let go entirely of what a place once was – and maybe it’s the same story of any city, any ever-changing place where construction never ends and suddenly there’s a bearded guy wrapping sandwiches from a store you could swear sold wooden baby toys and cashmere rugs last week. How do you honour the ghost of a much-loved prior tenant?
Dean’s Lounge is a lesson in measured nostalgia, of indulging in fun without veering into schmaltz. It used to be the home of Dean’s Café, an institution that welcomed locals and late-night revellers over three decades from the mid-70s – and its new iteration is careful to keep those threads strong, though not too tautly tied. Stepping over the threshold of the venue from Kellett Street wraps you up in warmth – partly because it feels like you’re entering a terrace home off a backstreet in Potts Point, but also because of the (real) crackling fire at its entryway. Run by couple Justin and Louka Marmot (also the co-owners of Shirt Bar), Dean's is kitted out with retro arcade games (Pacman, Donkey Kong), plush velvet retro armchairs and a series of booths set on chequerboard tiles. They’re pumping nostalgia through the air in this joint – but it never feels stifling or overthought.
Like other typical Victorian terraces that line Sydney’s inner suburbs, Dean’s Lounge is a long, skinny space. But we’d be surprised if your neighbour’s bar had a repertoire like this. There are classics, like a Penicillin or Negroni, but we’d recommend veering off track with one of Dean’s spins: why have an Old Fashioned when you can have one flavoured with banoffee? Cacao-infused Old Forester bourbon is spiked with banana salted caramel for a stiff, sweet tipple. The Sleepless in Sicily dials up the romance with a dash of limoncello, for a drink a little more Italian 50s cinema than wintry rom-com. For a dessert-time drink, try the Golden Splice, which tastes like an adult version of the supermarket ice cream (in the best way). Earthy turmeric cuts through the tequila, grounding the drink and stopping it short of being sugary from the melted, foamy topping of coconut sorbet (you’d think it was a riff on a Whiskey Sour at first glance, if it didn’t smell like a tropical beach bar).
As for eats, dig into simple, unintimidating bar snacks, the way drinking food should be. They’re serving an updated roster of Dean’s Cafe’s late-night snacks: think housemade jaffles (the spanokopita on puff pastry and a Sunday roast jaffle are must-trys); heaped bean nachos; cheese boards and a line-up of cakes baked in-house (including baked cheesecake, a flourless chocolate cake, and for those in the know, a sticky date pudding).
Dean’s Lounge manages to stir a sense of history through its well-mixed drinks, keeping a sense of its predecessor without veering into caricature or erasure. Watch that history bob to the surface in an arcade game in the corner, or a fading vintage poster on the far wall, or the sticky-sweet glaze on its forebear's most famous dessert.