No one is pretending that cocktails are a cost-effective way to relax or party in Sydney. In a city where $20 a drink isn't an uncommon price tag, you really want to know that what's in your glass has been shaken and stirred by the best in the business. These are the places that you can always trust to give you a truly outstanding drink in exchange for your hard-eraned.
Three years ago Bulletin Place gave the Sydney bar scene a haymaker it never saw coming. The little DIY attic above a café down near Circular Quay was not where anyone expected to find the city’s best fruit-driven, seasonal cocktail menu. We weren’t used to having a new set of drinks to discover each time we remounted those creaky timber stairs, and we sure as heck weren’t prepared for a raspberry cocktail that would melt our heart instead of making our skin crawl.
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. A well made Singapore Sling can send your tongue on a exotic getaway, even if the rest of you has to stay right here and pay the bills; a daiquiri has the power to convince your hips you’ve got the rhythm in you; and an Old Pal can be your best friend after a long day in the salt mines. 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.
This Must Be the Place is the bar that Darlinghurst’s portion of Oxford Street has been crying out for. This excellent establishment is brought to you by veterans Charlie Ainsbury and Luke Ashton, so that’s a whole lot of talent packed behind one little polished timber counter. Prepare to fall in love with spritzers. We’re not talking the white wine variety – here the bar team are broadening the definition of the drink with delicious results.
There is a dapper gent setting fire to a chopping board in front of our table, and he’s not an arsonist or attempting some sort of Breakfats Club-style fire alarm evacuation – he’s our bartender and the smoke of the cedar board is destined for a glass, following which the rest of our Smoky Rob Rob will be added. Blowtorching the serving ware is just the beginning of the dinner entertainment at this theatrical cocktail bar hidden out the back of the Kirketon Hotel in Darlinghurst.
In high-rise cities like Tokyo, many of the best things are not on the ground floor. You have to head up the stairs of commercial towers, tuck around laneways and use your best sleuthing skills to find great hidden bars. And while we’ve already got an excellent collection of underground haunts in Sydney, now we also have PS40, a cocktail bar and soda operation hiding just above eye level in the heart of the CBD. Though it might have taken us a few minutes to figure out how on earth to get into PS-40 (you have to go down the laneway a little), our efforts were rewarded with next level cocktails. And it’s no surprise really – the co-owners of this new venture are Michael Chiem and Thor Bergqvist, two rockstar Sydney bartenders with ludicrously impressive bar credentials.
We’re not surprised that a kickass cocktail bar has opened up in the heart of the legal and financial business district – we’re surprised it has taken this long. But a bar like Kittyhawk is worth waiting for. It’s the latest venture from the crack team you know and love from Lobo Plantation, and on our visit Dre Walters is behind the bar and Paige Aubort is working the floor – guests are in very good hands here. The bar is on the former site of the old Bull and Bear, which was channelling serious Wall Street vibes, but Kittyhawk is from another time and place entirely. Broadly speaking, the design IS inspired by Liberation Day in Paris (August 25, 1944), and, more specifically, by the Rum and Rye cocktail that is at the very top of their list. And it deserves its lauded position.
They’re not afraid to serve the Bitter Truth at Sydney’s hidden voodoo bar, and that’s because it’s an excellent cocktail, and not your friend telling you how badly you disgraced yourself the night before. A bracingly sour mix of lime juice, averna and tiki bitters is balanced by sloe gin, and it’ll soothe ruffled feathers and stop a shame spiral in its tracks. Want something gutsier to fortify your spirit? Old Fashioneds and barrel-aged cocktails might be a dime a dozen in Sydney, but the fig and walnut version they serve at Papa Gede’s is the one we want to drink most. It’s rich, mysterious and pricks at your childhood nostalgia with a flavour reminiscent of squashed fly biscuits.
Where can you go and eat a full, delicious restaurant menu until 3am every night of the week? Nowhere in Sydney, right? Wrong. Big Poppa’s has opened on Oxford Street, just across the road from celebrated late night snackeries Mr Crackles and BL Burgers, and let us tell you this: those guys have got some serious competition. It’s owned by Lewis Jaffrey (ex-Baxter Inn) and Jared Merlino (ex-Lobo Plantation), with a bar managed by Earl Juke Joint’s famed Irish bartender, Bobby Carey. There is a little restaurant upstairs at street level, which is all dark wood and classic feels, then downstairs there’s a moodily-lit bar that’s almost double the size and doing a happy mix of grown up drinks that are dry, bitter and boozy as well as a series of frozen frinks and colourful concotions that are a whole lot of fun.
It’s easy to go amber blind in here and forget that you are sitting in front of some of the best bartenders in the city – but not ordering a cocktail is a squandered opportunity. They have confidence and swagger behind the bar, but it’s been hard earned. They’ve mastered the classics for people who know what they like (Old Pals and Trinidad Sours all round!), but they also have a knack for finding the right match for an indecisive palate. And it doesn’t have to be whisky – a Tommy’s Margarita is always a good idea.
A drink in this subterranean rum bar is as good as a holiday. All that’s ever needed to reset a shitty day or keep a good one rolling is rum cocktails, some jangly tunes and good chat, and you can get it all at Lobo Plantation. In fact, this is the bar we will be spending our staycation in – just roll out a cot under the stairs. In the last 12 months they’ve brought their A-Game to the competitive sport that is inner city drinking, and you, thirsty worker bee, are the real winners.
The underground space is massive but Palmer and Co has a devoted following and stays open late so there’s never stacks of seats to spare. Once you’re comfy it’s time to let the deft, vintage-styled staff take care of you. Cut through all the rich bar food with a Blind Tiger that starts with a foundation of Maker’s Mark bourbon and then adds rich oloroso sherry, nutty house made orgeat, cumquat for a citrus bite and cardamom bitters. It sounds short and potent but is actually served long over ice so all the flavours have room to mingle. And even though you’re deep under the city, there’s still summertime vibes to be found in a classic El Diablo.
The worst part about discovering a great new bar? Once the cat is out of the bag, everyone wants in. Luckily the New Orleans-inspired cocktail den that has set up shop on King Street in the city is not exactly easy to find. The Swinging Cat hides underneath a Subway sandwich shop and boasts almost no signage. Of course, such is the CBD’s after-work thirst that the place pumps after knock off regardless – Sydney booze hounds can sniff out good drinks at a thousand paces. Had a bad day? You need a Sazerac. The cognac-based cocktail is mixed with bitters and sugar in an absinthe-rinsed, super-chilled glass. It blushes like an ingenue and boozes like a man about town. Or for something that pads its punches behind velvet gloves, order the Vieux Carre.
There’s north of 80 bottles on the menu at this low-lit hideaway, but you don’t have to drink it – even if there’s no better way to cool down a hot night in the city than with a high-end G & T. Perhaps a Maxwell House is more your speed. Dark rum, chestnut liqueur, cold drip coffee and salted caramel create a short and boozy cocktail that’s somehow sweet, toasty and refreshing all at once. Right about now would be a good time to keep your balance with a cheese board, a little charcuterie or a house made sausage roll.
You might not expect a seriously schmick wine bar and restaurant housed in the original Fairfax building in the heart of the CBD to be all about inclusivity, but the Bentley Restaurant and Bar by sommelier Nick Hildebrandt and chef Brent Savage wants everyone to have a good time. If you’re not here for the full sit-down dining experience that’s A-OK. Grab a table down on the bar level, vanish some exceptional wines by the glass, great cocktails and let the view into the buzzy, open kitchen tempt you to order up some bar snacks like glazed bonito with almond, buckwheat and finger lime, or a fancy prawn cocktail made with macadamia nuts and Mexican cucumbers.
One of our favourite Sydney activities is heading down to Circular Quay and ignoring the majesty of Sydney Harbour in favour of spending all our money on cocktails at Bulletin Place and fobbing off dinner completely. It’s a great time. But after three years kicking it in a cheeky booze garret, the Bulletin team’s second outing is all kinds of debonair, and a crack shot in the kitchen too. It’s no surprise that we’re expecting great things from Tim Philips, David Hobbs and Rob Sloan. When it comes to shit hot bar skills, these guys set the benchmark uncomfortably high and they’ve got plenty of awards from Time Out to prove it. What was once a scuzzy tapas bar has been transformed into a sleek lodge that could have slid straight off a Nordic mountain to land in the heart of Surry Hills. We’re talking clean surfaces, raw timber and a few potted ferns, and surprisingly the result is cosy and welcoming, not stark and austere. What we are loving about this place is that it’s pitch perfect for midweek drinking.
Now for dancing
Sydney's nightlife scene has been through tumutulous times since the introduction of the lockout laws, with clubs and late night venues hit the hardest. Hats off to the venues still giving Sydneysiders a place to boogie – and the producers and DJs still dishing out stellar soundtracks. There's live music, juice bars, drag shows, cabaret and even bowling alleys, which will lure even the most sceptical clubber to one of Sydney's favourite nightspots.