Time Out's 50 best Sydney bars
One hundred and two steps. Rooftop bars are not for the faint of quad. But all that thigh-burning just primes you for the reveal: swing open the door at the top and there you are, in a lushly planted oasis in the Sydney skyline. A smiling bartender hands you a VB throwdown while you flip through the menu. It might only be a quarter past six down on street level, but up here, it’s always time to take it easy.
When you change your cocktail list more often than people change their sheets, a guarantee that those five drinks are going to be creative, delicious, exciting, and worth every last dollar sounds very attractive, isn’t it? That’s why people still love Bulletin Place. This 45-person capacity bar hidden down near the harbour has proved without a shadow of a doubt that time does not have to erode the quality or consistency of your product.
This Twin Peaks-themed venue is a swift antidote to every serious wine bar and tonic water menu in town. It's an Inner West Tiki bar decked out in glowing fishing floats, dried puffer fish, and flocked banana palm wallpaper. They’re also sporting some of the city’s most ridiculous cocktails. We’re not kidding about those cocktails. If you order a Shark Bait, you better strap in for a big, white plastic shell full of crushed ice at sea in a mix of flaming rums and tropical juices.
Hidden under the streets of the CBD is the kind of whisky collection that would make a strong man weak at the knees. The menu board starts at the ceiling and the three-column list eventually sneaks down under the counter and out of sight. Every Islay, Speyside, Highlands, Lowlands and Campbelltown distillery you can’t pronounce – and the small collection you’re confident with – is there, including rare bottlings and unusual releases. What room is left goes to Japanese and Australian spirits, and blends.
Prepare yourself for some weird flavour science behind the bar at PS40. There is no bar in Sydney embracing the mad craft of cocktail experimentation as whole heartedly as the team here, nor any having as much fun doing it. They almost seem to take it as a personal challenge to see just how many unfamiliar flavours they can strongarm into delicious cooperation in one small glass. Did you know they even make their own aquavit? Add some to your order.
One the country’s original and best purveyors of wines from off the beaten track is also an ace spot to make snacks into dinner. You might say half the battle is won just having Iggy’s bread on hand. Fresh, the bread is offered simply sliced with good olive oil. Beyond that it becomes one of the kitchen's magical toast products, each of which pass the can-I-eat-this-with-a-glass-in-my-other-hand? test with flying colours.
Bartending is in many ways the study of party alchemy – mixing drinks to lift you up, cool you out and caress your soul if it’s in need of a little TLC. And there’s nowhere we prefer to pull up a stool and bend the elbow than at the long, sturdy, timber bar at Earl’s Juke Joint. There is no rockstar shift – your drinks are in safe hands on a Tuesday or a Friday. This is a bar you want to be a regular at – they even have merch so you can declare your allegiance to the world.
Visiting Cantina OK is enjoyably disorienting. Outside, it’s all grey concrete and peak-hour bus traffic, but step over the threshold and you’re in a tiny slice of Mexico. It’s standing room only, which is a good thing, because it allows most of the people to get some elbow room at the bar. Drinking here is an interactive event. The menu is less about listing the 48 bottlings of extremely limited mezcal on the wall than it is a photo essay and travel journal from the Tio's trio's recent purchasing trip through Mexico.
The party never stops at Shady Pines. Open the unmarked door off a dark lane in Darlinghurst and descend into a sunken saloon where at any moment you could find yourself in the middle of a wobbly sing-a-long to American Pie cranked right up – and that’s on a Wednesday. This is the place where Sydney got its taste for booze and fresh apple juice. You somehow never feel like you’re really hitting the sauce if your drink is this fresh and foamy. Surely it’s repairing whatever damage you might be doing as you go along?
It's a deli-, bar and bistro where you can get a perfectly chilled Martini in a tin, or order a Bloody Mary if you’re struggling. Wines here don’t bother with the path well travelled – they cut a new flavour trail with local, biodynamic drops that will steal your heart away. Yes, you’re here for the drinks, but if you can enter this Aladdin’s cave of treats that are the very opposite of clean eating, your willpower is superhuman. In the fridges are triple-cream Bries, melty washed rinds and sharp blues plus cured meats of all stripes.
It's a proper British establishment that could have been ripped from an Orwell story, but the Duke of Clarence is in Sydney's prime drinking pocket on Clarence Street. They can pull you a perfect pint of Guinness, but really, this is a bar in pub’s clothing: a slender, licensed slice of the city designed to transport you to a different time and place. And for anyone missing Old Blighty, here is the Scotch eggs, ploughmans, fish finger butty and roast you've been waiting for.
More bartenders should sport double-breasted dinner jackets. More cocktail bars should play jazz hits and lounge covers at conversation-enhancing volume. And more hosts should welcome guests as eagerly as owner Stefano Catino does at Maybe Sammy. It’s a polished affair bathed in Golden Age glamour — blonde wood, white marble, grey-green leather stools, plush rosy banquettes – and they'll make you a half-serve classic to eke out the good times.
If you want to see Sydney at her absolute best, go for a drink at Redfern’s neighbourhood art bar, the Bearded Tit. Inside this cosy establishment you get a glimpse of what it could be like if we all just got along. The weird and wonderful are welcomed here; there is a mix of punters that properly reflects the Sydney rainbow, and nobody gives it a second thought. We’re all too busy having a brilliant time.
This underground rum bar below Clarence Street is named after Cuban sugar baron Julio Lobo. A cluttered but cohesive mix of flamingo tiles, rattan chairs, banana palms and crumbling patina surfaces provide weathered Cuban charm. But the real visual focus is the bartenders. They create with precision. And fire, if you order the Old Grogram. Slip into the chesterfield booth seating and prepare for a fabulous tiki mini-break for your mouth.
This is not the kind of bar where you go to hit the sauce. In fact, it's a lot closer in spirit and tone to a café than a bar. It's light ad breezy; the staff are friendly; and toats is on the menu at all times of day thanks to their menu of simple snacks that take adhere to the Iberian standard of tinned fish and good bread. The drinks are carefully crafted and carbonated in house to ensure max freshness for the lower ABV tipples that mean you can prop up the bar longer.
It’ll take more than one great bar to overturn the Rocks’ reputation as a tourist trap, but one is a very good start, especially when it’s a heavily fortified whisky cave built in a former storehouse/opium den/hospital/cobbler that dates back to 1847. Doss house has certainly gone to great pains to ensure you get that real Playing Beattie Bow vibe. The walls are hewn from Sydney sandstone. Leather Chesterfields and armchairs surround the fireplace.
There's a new standard of cocktail finesse on display at Bancho Bar, a refined Japanese whisky and fine drinking establishment in a Chinatown alley from the people who brought you Tokyo Bird in Surry Hills. The space used to be a conference room belonging to the Ultimo Hotel, but it’s far better as a sleek whisky bar in muted tones, where they have installed whisky lockers if you’re fancy enough to spring for a whole bottle that you’ll slowly drink on concurrent visits.
Just because the sister bar to Ester in Chippendale is calling itself a bar doesn’t mean you’re not going to drop a chunk of cash grazing your way through the snacks menu. It’s less a slippery slope and more a delicious slide that starts off withbread charred on the open wood-fire grill and might end with a killer steak and as much wine as you can pack in around the sides.
Sexy Italian wine bars don’t get much cosier than Ode. All that low, flattering light is like a real-world Instagram filter; the little round tables are so small you can interlock knees; and given they quite literally have wine on tap, a night here is a reliable recipe for romance. We’re so used to the all-white coastal colour scheme of Bondi that the rustic raw brick and solid timber fitout of Ode is almost disorienting, but on a winter’s night it’s actually the perfect antidote to a bone-chilling coastal breeze.
You’d be hard pressed to find a crew of friendlier or more welcoming bar peeps than the team at this laneway voodoo bar. Good chat, solid guidance, and their pro-dog agenda gets major bonus points. Their dog-friendly status is because they don’t serve hot food, but salty snacks come in the form of cheeses and meats, and crunchy things like pretzels and pork crackling that they jazz up with a squeeze of fresh lime juice and some Tabasco to get you ready for round two.
The Dolphin Wine Room is a long, narrow slice of the overall Dolphin Hotel, and once you tuck yourself into one of the tables along the wall or up at the bar, prepare to go home with an empty wallet and full to bursting with vinous delights. This is the kind of place that can turn your whole understanding of wine upside down. Behind the bar is a wall of fridges with small doors so that it resembles a 16-day advent calendar, but instead of shit chocolate you get a whole lot of crazy, interesting, fun and smashable wine.
Back in New York in 2004, when Employees Only opened, the neo-Prohibition aesthetic was getting a head of steam. Drinks were strong, waistcoats were big, moustaches were waxed. Opening behind a clairvoyant shopfront on Hudson Street, it was an essential part of the craft cocktail revolution. Fourteen years later and it’s safe to say the secret is out. The bar has outposts in Singapore, Miami, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, and now the Sydney CBD.
Wine can quickly become an expensive hobby. Luckily, Matt Swieboda, Nathanial Hatwell and Tristan Blair, who own Dear Sainte Éloise, want to share the love, not hoard it. That’s why there are more than half a dozen wines by the bottle for under $60 at this all-class European-inflected wine bar on Llankelly Place. In a city where it’s easy to find single glasses well over the $20 mark, it’s astonishing to find a range at such an affordable price point.
At Tio’s they’ve got around 120 different spirits on their books and some of them are exceptionally difficult to get in this country. Play your cards right and in a quiet moment the bartenders will walk you through some of the extra special stuff, like the Los Dazantes mezcal that burns like a grass fire and extinguishes as quickly with a mineral, citrus, salty herbal flavour. Or just order a Paloma and let the hours fly by to the sound of Mexican surf-rock and the rustle of paper bags that the free spiced popcorn comes in.
For a good time, visit the three ringmasters of this perpetual party circus. Whether it’s the six-buck “shit tins” or something a little stiffer, the drinks are good – these boys are Baxter Inn graduates, after all – but you’re not here for the Cognac and corn-nuts. You’re here to be part of a party that flows each and every day from a bar team that’s as humble as it is adventurous, as generous as it is vigorous, and friendly to a fault. Long may they ramble.
Don’t linger and reply to that last email, because the early bird gets the best seats that line the long counter. A big part of the reason everyone’s trying to cram in here is the tiny drinks. For anyone who loves the social aspect of an afterwork bevvy but doesn’t jive on gallons of mid-week booze, may we present this teeny Martini, a 60ml three-sipper. And it’s brought its friends: the mini Negroni, the 100ml pour of a minerally, savoury viura from Rioja; and a smashable, citrusy sangria on tap that’s served with enough ice to withstand a heatwave.
Sydney has plenty of secrets too, and one of our favourites is a compact, two-story jungle whiskey bar with an Irish accent hidden in Surry Hills. The Wild Rover is one of those bars that people like to think of as their personal hideout. A rough day is swiftly mended by a pewter tankard of Guinness, a round of oysters or a juicy, flavoursome lamb sausage roll cooked to order. And that brings us to the end of the snacks menu. By contrast you’ll run out of cash before you get to the end of the cocktail list.
This Japanese whisky bar tucked off Commonwealth Street on Belmore Lane is certainly not going out of its way to draw attention to itself. Seek it out for a night of Old Fashioneds made with 12-year-old Yamazaki, Moscow Mules made with Kaukubin, and a whole host of less common Japanese drams that will open up a whole new drinking game for fans of barrel-aged spirits from the land of the rising sun.
The new Regent of afterhours eats in Redfern is Bart Jr. In a feat of design wizardry, they’ve managed to make one of those glass-front, new development retail spaces feel warm, welcoming and lived in. It must be all that caramel coloured timber, golden light and flowers arranged about the room. What they’ve successfully done is upload the spirit of a café into a bar. It might have been the promise of a glass of the Somos barbera rosé that got you here but it’s the food menu that will keep you in your seat.
Kings Cross might be a bit quiet of late, but there’s a high old time happening inside Eau De Vie. Newly minted couples canoodle on the black leather lounges, posses of party people crowd out the high central table and in the whisky bar are the locked cabinets reserved for high rollers who buy a bottle of the good stuff at a time. After all these years it’s still surprising that, casually strolling through a hotel lobby, you end up in a high-end cocktail bar, especially one as devoted to mixology theatrics as Eau De Vie.
There’s a cocktail bar in Parramatta in a little concrete bunker tucked beneath a council car park. The sound of new development is the staccato rhythm that Parramatta moves to as Sydney’s second CBD continues to expand, but Uncle Kurt’s is no shiny, corporate bar. It’s got a whole lot more of the spirit of ’80s New York City with a little Berlin punk thrown in for good measure amongst the graffiti on the bar brick walls and the red glow of the neon cleaver.
We're a city that loves being in on the secret, so a gin palace hidden behind a full functioning barber shop is right up our alley. And they really love gin here. There’s north of 80 bottles on the menu at this low-lit hideaway with a slight terrarium vibe, including a vintage collection for people with money to burn. They also feature Genever, the Dutch spirit from which gin originates.
It’s entirely likely that Mary’s is more famous as a burger place than as a bar. People queue for up to an hour just to get in the front door of this slightly scuzzy boozer with a penchant for Slaytanic font (yes, there is a font inspired by the 1980s thrash metal band). But those who look beyond the burger buns are rewarded with a bar you’ll want to linger in, thanks in no small part to their excellent natural wine list.
This pocket of Rosebery is now a hive of drinking and dining activity, but the flagship tennant will always be Sydney's only whisky distillery, Archie Rose, where on one side of a bonded warehouse they're making gins, vodka, white rye and single malt, and on the other you can drink the fruits of their labour in beautifully balanced cocktails.
The heart of the business district is not where you’d expect to find an underground heavy metal pizza party, but Frankie’s Pizza by the Slice doesn’t much go in for the expected. The front room feels like a pizza parlour from a movie set, but it’s more Ninja Turtles than Sopranos. Through the looking glass, or rather through the saloon doors, is Frankie’s dark side. The bar and band room is where the spirit of rock has holed up since being ousted from the likes of the Annandale and the Sandringham (Vale, old friends).
This is a bar that is refined and sexy, but didn’t lose the fun in the refurb. It’s not just the drinks that impress us (but we’ll rave on those shortly). There's the snack menu that demands an order of ‘one of everything’, a photoshoot-worthy lighting and house party soundtrack. A wide marble bar and wood panelled walls provide a classic canvas for the hero of the place: the wine inventory, which lines the room.
A cosy, timber lined cocktail bar that keeps the kitchen open late is welcome in any neighbourhood, but especially Potts Point. They take their cocktail craft very seriously here, but the chat is also up to scratch, which is why the seats that ring the bar are the first to go when the doors of this skinny venue swing open.
The line between restaurant and bar has gone from a little fuzzy to indistinct, and nowhere is this more so than at Brent Savage and Nick Hildebrandt’s Potts Point wine bar and restaurant, Monopole. You could pop in for a cheeky drink and end up eating the full tasting menu. You could opt for a quick supper that turns into rolling home heavy with biodynamic wines and light on cash. It all depends on what you’re in the mood for.
The follow-up to the Ramblin' Rascal Taven is a retro 'porno-chic' basement bar with lots of cheeky swagger. A list of ten cocktails comes at you inside a VHS case with a very naughty cover and the soundtrack hums with hits from the likes of James Brown and Curtis Mayfield. These guys can sure mix a drink, and they've got enough banter to sweet talk you straight into a second round. Get comfortable and take them up on the offer.
All it took for Parramatta’s bar scene to go from burgeoning to baller was 270-degree views that stretch from the Blue Mountains on one side to a teeny tiny Harbour Bridge on the other horizon. The first Western Sydney enterprise from the Speakeasy Group (Eau De Vie, Mjolner) is a stunner. You need to seek it out on the 26th floor of the shiny new V by Crown building, which houses Skye Hotel Suites, as well as schmick apartments. This context is important, because Nick and Nora’s gives off swanky hotel bar vibes.
You’d think you’d know what to expect from a bar that sells cocktails in cans of soft drink. You’d be forgiven for writing off this purple neon-loving, fern flaunting spot in Redfern as a high GI, cheap-thrills kind of place. Don’t get us wrong, a can of Passiona topped up with passionfruit pulp, and vodka (plain and vanilla) is the very definition of bar hijinks designed to appeal to crowds of uni students, but there’s more heart to this venue in Redfern than its colourful, irreverent drinks list lets on.
Sandwiched between a medical centre and a dollar store on Penrith’s High Street is a cocktail bar adding a second compelling reason to visit the Western Sydney suburb after dark, after a quick El Jannah run, of course.They’ve named this 80-seat bar after Watkin Tench, a British marine officer noted for sailing with the First Fleet and ‘discovering’ the Nepean River. The odd colonial connection is mostly a conduit for the décor, which is themed like a 17th century explorer’s study, and blimey, have they gone all out.
Scout’s flagship venue in Shoreditch, London, is owned by master mixologist Matt Whiley, but the promise of beaches, multi-seasonal produce and some pretty ace real estate in the form of the Dolphin Hotel’s top floor was what sealed the deal for a Southern hemisphere sojourn. And Whiley has fully committed, going full Australiana on the drinks list with the fervour of a Jenny Kee-scarf sporting, Ken Done loving bush poet. Cocktails here are thought starters, conversation fodder and unlike anything else you’ll drink in Sydney right now
Every suburb needs a little guy – a tiny bar wedged in on the main street between a Student Flights and a pasta joint, one that serves the drinks you wish you could have at home, in surrounds just as comfortable. Feeling like some quiet time? Head upstairs and stretch out on one of the lounges like a territorial house cat with a generous pour of easy-drinking pinot noir. Brought your tribe with you? Lay claim to the back room packed with foot stools and vintage chairs.
To find this house of craft gin, where Poor Tom’s have been distilling their own small batch juniper spirit in a converted Marrickville warehouse since 2015, you’ll need to look for the partially-opened corrugated roller door tucked amidst a motorcycle repair shop and a metal stamp factory. And it’s worth hunting down, because now they’ve added a bar to their operation where you can get a very good Martini.
At Charlie Parker’s, the cocktail bar underneath French country restaurant Fred’s, you're slipping into a snug, dark warren of comfy nooks for wooing, with a big imposing bar to sit at if you like some bartender chat with your drinks. You’ve got more fingers than they’ve got wines by the glass, but that’s because this crew loves spirits – there’s tasting notes for everything on the back bar, which might not arouse much interest in a London dry gin drinker, but is quite handy for whisky.
“It’s really weird, but pretty exciting”, our chipper waitress tells us. She’s referring to a dish of charred, salt-brined pineapple, dusted with chilli and resting on a ricotta-like macadamia cream. It’s not exactly something you’d expect to see on the menu at your neighbourhood bar. But, then again, Golden Gully isn’t exactly the neighbourhood bar you might expect. It’s home to that rare, democratic drinks list suited to every palate and pocket without sacrificing its hyper-local point of view.
It takes a certain mindset to see the potential for a cosy little bar in an awkward, narrow room off a city laneway, but luckily for us the team at Burrow Bar were able to look past the fluorescent lights and corporate Gyprock walls and imagine something better. They have transformed what looked like a standard office foyer into a bar you’ll want to make your regular, especially if you work in the CBD.
Bibo has all the essential hallmarks of an upmarket Euro-style wine bar: it’s low lit, dark and looks like an old-world smoking room. There’s an open-air deck out the back for balmy nights in the east; a private dining room upstairs that can seat 40 people; and a museum wine list of cellared wines if you are as rich as a Kennedy. If you just want a snifter of a millionaire’s life they also do museum wines by the glass so you can drop $48 on a 2005 Two Hands shiraz from McLaren Vale – just to see what it tastes like.
You know a suburb was clamouring for a wine bar when at 6.30pm on a Wednesday there’s hardly an empty seat in the house. Where’s Nick, Marrickville’s only wine bar, has been embraced by the swiftly gentrifying Inner West suburb with a fervour usually reserved for relatives thought to be lost at sea. Turns out the residents of 2204 are ready and willing to pull up a mismatched wooden dining chair, open their wallets and lob fistfuls of dollars over the bar in return for more glasses of the Other Right’s late year viognier.