January 2019: There’s more to consider now when you pull up a bar stool than ever before. Quality, service and value for money remain front-of-mind, but what about sustainability? Innovation? Collaboration? Low- and no-ABV drinks? PS40 addresses these questions with vim and vigour, which is why it took top honours at our 2020 Bar Awards. Old favourites, such as the Baxter Inn and Lobo Plantation, are still very much at the top of their game, but trailblazing newcomers like Double Deuce Lounge, Maybe Sammy and Cantina OK have raised the bar and already added immeasurably to our exceptional bar scene.
Sydney loves a drink, no doubt about it. From rough-and-ready beer-stained pubs, RSLs and bowling clubs to subterranean speakeasies and glamorous delis with tinned Martinis – the Harbour City has it all. In this town, there’s a bar for every occasion and an occasion for every bar, and this is our handpicked list of the 50 best.
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Time Out's 50 best Sydney bars
Whether it’s a wild concoction of aquavit, banana leaf and spiced oat milk named after a Hall and Oates-headlined music festival or one of the ridiculously delicious housemade sodas, every drink at PS40 sets a higher standard for creativity. In fact, no bar in Sydney embraces experimentation quite like this one. For these guys, waking up in the morning is another opportunity to continue redefining our perception of what a drink can be, and we are totally along for the ride.
Cosmos, Stingers and other ’70s relics are back and better than ever at this retro ‘porno chic’ cocktail joint named after a dive bar in a cult Patrick Swayze flick. The revivers are stiff, the banter is second to none and it’s all set to a pumping soundtrack of Aretha, Curtis Mayfield and James Brown. You’ll get sweet talked into a second round before you know it, and you should most definitely take them up on the offer.
Five entirely new cocktails get scrawled on the butchers’ paper behind the bar each day, but steadfast commitment to quality produce and razor-sharp execution are never in question at this CBD institution. Scoring one of the 45 seats here earns you the privilege of watching one of the country’s most talented bar teams in action, knowing that whatever they’re building, stirring or shaking will be entirely in a league of its own.
Even after all these years, walking down the cobblestone lane and heading underground into this perennially packed, transportive whisky wonderland remains every bit as thrilling. The attention to detail down here is downright staggering and so, too, are the unwavering professionalism and the consistency of the final product. No wonder it tops almost everyone’s list for the best of the best, time and time again.
Old Mate pushes all the right buttons: an unmarked entrance, that killer rooftop, cosy booths, old library vibes and dynamite drinks backed up with big smiles and excellent chat. The list marches to the beat of its own drum, but classics are capably handled with the utmost care as well. Throw in lengthy Sunday opening hours, the added bonus of cracking Philly cheese steaks and you’ve got the recipe for a session to remember.
Earl’s has been around for the better part of a decade, and while curiosity might have initially pushed us past the Betta Meats façade on south King Street to see what was hiding inside, these days it’s the siren song of stellar Sazeracs and guaranteed rollicking times. The Time Out Bar Awards winners for Sydney’s Best Bar Team specialise in a kind, earnest and inclusive brand of Inner West hospitality that’s impossible to ignore.
Outside, it’s all grey concrete and peak-hour bus traffic, but step into this repurposed car spot and you’ll find a tiny slice of Mexico. There’s only standing room for 20 tipplers, which puts you front and centre for a whirlwind tour through the rare, weird and wonderful collection of mezcal brought to you by one of the friendliest crews in town. And if you’ve been searching for Sydney’s very best Margarita, look no further.
The roaring ’50s are alive and well at this Golden Age-glam “hotel bar without the hotel”. With swagger levels at an all-time high, the stereo blasts Rat Pack hits and the cocktails (appropriately named after bygone Vegas casinos) come with a side of showy theatricality that makes drinking here an event in its own right. The $11 Mini cocktails are a smart way to start, especially at happy hour, when they’re half price. Take an early mark.
If a rum-fuelled rip-roarer is on the cards, there’s no better bet than a wander down the winding staircase into the beautifully reimagined world of Old Havana to get you where you need to go. And let’s face it – how many other squads in the city detail the ins and outs of navy rum’s complex history while torching a cocktail to the cinnamon-scented heavens with this much style and confidence? Still every bit as essential to any list as it was the day it opened.
Sydney got its first taste of the Swillhouse group’s knack for taxidermy, shelled peanuts and honky-tonk a decade ago, but we keep going back to this Darlinghurst mainstay because it’s as good as it has always been. Well that, and the fact that a handful of whiskies with freshly squeezed apple juice is the definition of a long innings well spent, and an impromptu sing-a-long or line dance is always on the cards.
Behind the kooky Twin Peaks theming, the banana palm wallpaper and the dried puffer fish hanging from the thatched ceiling is a tiki bar serving serious drinks that rank among some of the best in the city. This is where to head if you want a proper schooling in the art of a Hemingway Daiquiri, or a big white shell full of crushed ice and a mix of tropical juices and overproof rum that’s on fire.
No wonder this unassuming CBD boozer’s named after the voodoo spirit of lust and laughter – you always want a second Zombie, and you always have a hoot. You’d be hard pressed to find a more welcoming bunch than the folks behind the stick; enlist them to guide you through the well-priced list and trust whatever advice they give you. They earn brownie points for their staunch dog-friendly agenda and sell-out comedy nights.
Warning: pulling up a pew at this Newtown delicatessen invokes a bewitching sense of old-world nostalgia and will probably give rise to an unhealthy obsession with their canned cocktails (one Mar-tinny is never enough!). All it takes is a few visits, and you’ll be a regular working through the exceptional range of sherry, vermouth and amaro in no time. Just be sure not to skimp on the cheeses, cured meats and tinned fish.
This Platonic ideal of the grown-up neighbourhood cocktail haunt is worth crossing town for, not only because the crack team takes the craft incredibly seriously but also because the kitchen stays open late. That means arriving early for the bargain happy hour and tanking up till the lights come on is a very real possibility – one you should definitely consider exploring if you haven’t (and even if you have).
“We believe that everyone should have the chance to discover these wines,” reads the wine list at Where’s Nick, “and we list them at a lower cost accordingly.” It’s that egalitarian spirit, coupled with the overwhelmingly inviting, comfortable and easy-going nature of the place that makes Marrickville’s first and only dedicated wine bar such a home run. They’re not preachy about the whole minimal-intervention wine scene, they just believe in stocking the shelves and fridges with good juice and to that we say, “Amen”.
Picture an 18th-century London tavern smack bang in the centre of the CBD, and you’ve pretty much nailed the Duke of Clarence. In the depths of winter, there’s no better post than in front of the roaring fireplace with a Scotch egg in one hand and a hand-pumped cask ale in the other, before moving on to a Sunday roast. It might look like a pub, but don’t forget they’ve got cocktail smarts in spades too.
Merivale channels the timeless elegance of 1920s Paris at this petite and very civilised cocktail parlour in the Ivy complex. Come for a knockout riff on a French 75 and stay for the very adult comforts of attentive table service, ice-cold Craddock-era cocktails, a standout selection of cheeses and wines dramatically poured from magnums. The 60 seats fill up awfully quickly after work, but you’ve got till 2am to take advantage of the good times on Friday and Saturday.
Will it be a slice and a red wine in the daggy pizza parlour in front? A tinnie and a game of pinball in the back? A head-banging live heavy metal set, perhaps? Or maybe just a quiet nightcap in the secret Fun Room? Whatever your pleasure, Frankie’s has you more than covered. Our suggestion? Do it all – the only part that isn’t fun is deciding when to call it quits.
So many wine bars strive for the look and feel of a place you stumble upon in Europe, but few get it quite as right as the smooth operators at DSE. You’d be wise to summon the assistance of the knowledgeable gang before making a selection from the 300-strong list of organic, biodynamic, unfined and unfiltered drops – these guys know their stuff, and exactly what from the short, sharp menu of produce-forward small plates to pair it with.
The esteemed New York speakeasy that made headlines and became a global phenomenon has found its way into a subterranean CBD space and brought along with it everything that made the OG great: an entrance marked by nothing but a ‘Psychic’ sign, the chef’s coat uniforms, a tarot card reader, exceptionally en pointe cocktails and complimentary chicken soup doled out to the brave souls who last till the 3am call time.
“Shit tins” of beer, an unquenchable thirst for Cognac, the eternally tempting offer of a Mary’s burger delivered from upstairs and a bar team with enough charisma to turn even the worst of days into the best of them. That’s the Ramblin’ Rascal Tavern in a nutshell, and if there’s anything not to like about it, we certainly haven’t stumbled upon it yet. Even the corn nuts are good.
For those who like their whisky with a side of history (and who wouldn’t), there’s no better place to indulge in both than the Doss House. The stunning sandstone building has been home to a bootmaker, boarding house and opium den in its 170-year lifetime, and once you’re a few nips into their enormous collection, it becomes a question not of whether the walls can talk, but instead what wild tales they’re telling.
A poster child for inclusivity, the Tit is one of those bars that’s so fiercely championed by its colourful regulars that you wonder how they ever got on in life without it. Come for a drag show, marvel at the paraphernalia all over the walls, have a d and m with your bestie in the caravan parked out the back – you can do it all here, without a shred of judgment or a second thought. Just bring your best you.
The liberation of Paris on August 25 of 1944 might not be the first source of inspiration that springs to mind when you think of a Sydney bar, but does that even matter when there’s an exhaustive catalogue of rye whiskey, smarter-than-average bar snacks, polished service, a quadrillion types of bitters and a back bar so incredibly beautiful you get a little drunk in love just by looking at it? No, no it does not.
At Isabel, at least one component of your drink will definitely be fermented, dehydrated, redistilled or clarified. There’s ambition galore on display, and a sky-high level of execution too, but that’s what makes this Bondi newcomer so exciting. The best way to experience it all is the kaiseki – a degustation of drinks and selections from the kushiyaki menu that combines native Australian ingredients, Japanese flavours and a coastal coolness that’s unlike anything else in Sydney.
Tight on space but big on pushing boundaries, the Dolphin remains a go-to for getting in touch with the esoteric side of the wine spectrum. There’s never a bad time to drop by, but it’s at aperitivo hour, between 5 and 7pm, when the place really shines. Bring all your shrapnel for drinks and snacks between $5 and $7, and then settle in for the long haul and a magnum of something spesh.
Raucousness is always on the menu at Tio’s, and that’s probably because more than 100 tequilas live behind the bar – many of which aren’t easy to come by in the Southern Hemisphere. Play your cards right and in a quiet moment the staff will talk you through some of the extra-special stuff. Or, just order one Paloma after the next while the hours fly by and you eat more free popcorn than you knew you were capable of.
First, you must descend a long flight of stairs. Then, walk down a seemingly endless hallway. When you finally reach the door with the brass pineapple, knock three times, and you’re in. Clever and well-crafted cocktails in a comfy, vaguely chalet-like bunker await, as does confirmation that sometimes it is actually more about the destination than the journey. You’d have no idea if Armageddon was happening back up in the real world.
Given how deeply enamored we are with gin, it’s surprising there aren’t more gin joints on our city streets. But then again, maybe it isn’t. The Barber Shop set such a high standard when it opened in 2013, not least for the gigantic collection of juniper-scented spirits, and it continues to do so. Just remember to start with a shave before wetting the whistle – you don’t want a few dirty Martinis getting in the way of a sharp blade.
Market-fresh cocktails hop, skip and jump through Asia at this refined 100-capacity Haymarket bar from the folks that brought you Tokyo Bird in Surry Hills. Much like its sibling, Japan is the primary source material here, so get stuck in to the handful of Highballs, tonkatsu skewers, popcorn karaage chicken and a nip of something from Nikka or Suntory. More of a traditionalist? Splurge on something old and rare from Speyside or Islay.
What happens when you shuffle Sydney’s original rockabilly tapas hangout into one of the most beloved wine bars in town? A whole lotta magic. All you really need to know is the legendary fish fingers are still on the menu, and every single bottle on the 300-plus label list is available by the glass. Reach deep into your pockets, ask for assistance from the knowledgeable team and have them decant something extra special.
There’s no friendlier greeting in Sydney than the one you get when you throw open the unmarked door at the Rover. Here, in this two-storey hideaway wrapped in jungle wallpaper, a rough day is swiftly mended by a pewter tankard of Guinness, a round of oysters and a juicy lamb sausage roll cooked to order. Irish whiskey fans will have a field day and so, too, will craft beer devotees. Come one, come all.
We’re all too familiar with the speakeasy trope, but the Cumberland might just be the one that trumps them all. An original 1920s fridge door in a handsome European-style deli turns out to be the entrance to an underground world of flickering candlelight and extraordinary details like turn-of-the-century brass beer taps. Cocktails tell stories of central Sydney in the 1800s, with cured meats and raclette from the deli upstairs at the ready.
“It’s always sunny at the Gully” reads the golden decal on the front door, and that’s not a lie. Downstairs, it’s a convivial local watering hole with a laser-like focus on home-grown wines, beers and spirits. Upstairs, it’s a sit-down, table-service affair with a (mostly) vegan menu. On every level, it feels like the blueprint for the Aussie small bar of the future and we’re totally on board.
When Eau de Vie landed on the cocktail circuit more than a decade ago, Sydney had never seen anything like it. Even today, no bar commits quite as wholeheartedly to high-minded production values quite the same way. There will likely be liquid nitrogen, perhaps cigar-scented rum or popcorn-infused Cognac. If that’s not your thing, put a down payment on a bottle of whisky and store it in a personal locker for a rainy day.
A true pioneer of Sydney’s ever-burgeoning wine bar landscape, Love, Tilly Devine turned heads when it opened in the cavernous Best Cellars storeroom down a Darlinghurst back alley like it was ripped from the streets of Melbourne. It spawned imitators up the wazoo, but even after all these years, it still does what it does better than most, and scoring a coveted window seat still feels like winning the lottery.
It should come as no surprise that Australia’s most awarded distillery just so happens to be a bar that warrants going out of your way to visit. You can drink the entire Archie Rose range here, of course, but you can also blend your own hooch – which is both a pleasure and a privilege in the company of the brilliant staff, soaring ceilings, gleaming copper and ageing whisky casks.
If you close your eyes and imagine the ultimate first-date venue, you’ll probably conjure something like Ode – all exposed brick, timber beams, gloriously golden lighting and tiny tables that make breaking the ice a little bit easier. So, too, do the thoughtful list of natural wines, the well-priced cocktails and the very tempting offer of a perfectly cooked minute steak if the conversation flows and you decide to stay for dinner.
Charlie Parker’s is an extension of the philosophy at Fred’s, Merivale’s top-tier farm-to-table fine diner upstairs. So, yes, it’s just as beautifully rustic. Yes, the cocktails are outrageously fresh and fragrant with foraged leaves, flowers, stems and branches. And yes, the bar food – fish crudo, rustic meatballs, wood-fired flatbreads finished with seasonal vegetables – is a wallet-friendly way to experience the cooking of one of Sydney’s best chefs.
There are rooftop bars, and then there’s Nick and Nora’s. On a clear day, the neck-straining panoramas stretch from the Blue Mountains all the way to the Harbour Bridge. But, even in inclimate weather, the glamorous Art Deco atmosphere, technique-driven cocktails and baller Champagne collection ensure that any time spent up on the 26th floor will very much be worth your while.
Sustainability wins the day, and does the all-Aussie ethos at this café-bar-restaurant hybrid from decorated barkeep Lee Potter Cavanagh. Begin with a Spritz showcasing local champions like Poor Tom’s, Okar and Marionette, before moving on to the likes of braised kangaroo croquettes or beetroot-cured crocodile ceviche. And to finish? A housemade strawberry kombucha ice block, of course. This is Bondi we’re talking about, after all.
You could spend all day and night muscling through the jaw-dropping stockpile of global benchmarks, cult classics and back vintages at this revered Potts Point stalwart. Nick Hildebrandt’s list really is a wonder to behold, and every drop stands toe to toe with chef Brent Savage’s housemade charcuterie, intricate share plates and an immaculate collection of cheeses. It’s probably one of the darkest rooms in town, so keep it up your sleeve for a first date.
This small bar and whisky specialist tucked off Commonwealth Street takes plenty of inspiration from the Land of the Rising Sun; the discreet location, sleek digs and a host of exciting rare drams that even the most accomplished of collectors would envy. And that doesn’t even take the selection of sake, umeshu, rice lagers or the yakitori menu into account, or the matcha milk punch for that matter.
There’s a reason Bart Jr’s always heaving: it’s got the heart and soul of a cosy neighbourhood café, but it’s very much a locals’ bar. The mood is always warm and welcoming, ready to greet you with something on tap from the Grifter or something on the pour from an on-trend list of wines that doesn’t try too hard. Drinks might have lured you here in the first place, but the food will keep you in your seat.
Ever heard of De Mestre Place? Hidden bars are no strangers to the Sydney scene, but Burrow Bar takes it to another level and you will probably feel lost until you’re firmly planted on a stool in this awkward, narrow room off a CBD laneway. Skill is in no short supply in these parts, which goes a long way in explaining why it thrums with a devoted army of after-work regulars.
What began as a bar blasting heavy metal in a former sexual health clinic has catapulted into a powerhouse hospitality group known for what many consider the best burger in Sydney. The Newtown original remains the best of the bunch, not only for the range of cold beers and the inevitable shots of Jack Daniels, but also for one of the best natural wine lists in the city, at prices that are almost too good to be true.
Trust the crew at Ester, one of our favourite restaurants, to open a wine bar that captures the zeitgeist. We can’t seem to get enough of cloudy wines from exotic regions that aren’t so easy to pronounce, understated industrial design and umami-packed bar snacks from the wood fire that quickly turn into a meal – and Poly scratches that itch with almost unparalleled ease. Now, make it another bottle, please.
Choose your own adventure at this CBD pleasure palace: a bottle of something natural and some tinned fish in a leather booth upstairs, a rowdy round or four of cocktails down below, or a boogie on the terrazzo tables and pink banquettes at Pamela’s. If you think the CBD has lost its groove, Prince of York is proof that you’re sorely mistaken. And if you’re still not convinced, order one of the mezcal punch bowls.
Can you credit a single bar with revolutionising an entire neighbourhood? Redfern’s now a bustling bar hub, and it’s thanks in no small part to this endlessly charming local, where exposed brick, fairy lights and chipper staff who remember your name make it feel like home. So does the promise of a solid drink, regardless of whether it’s a glass of red, a Tommy’s Margarita or something crafty on tap.
One of Sydney's early trailblazers in the small-bar renaissance, Grandma's made it okay for crochet to feature as part of a decorative scheme and for peanut butter to star in a colada cocktail. Those things are still very okay with us almost a decade later at this self-described "retro-sexual haven of cosmopolitan kitsch and faded granny glamour" that thankfully hasn't lost any of its lustre or good humour.