Walking into a bar – in comedy, it’s a classic set-up for a joke; in life, it’s a popular way to find romance. There are plenty of reasons to hit a low-lit, boozy venue when love is on the cards. Sydney has many great venues that’ll (responsibly) serve you drinks to calm your nerves or spark conversations with strangers. Plus, any interest is well-catered for: you can play arcade games at 1989 Kitchen and Arcade; bust curfew and exchange numbers at Frankie’s Pizza By The Slice over pinball and rock; or enjoy spirits the grown-up way at Rosebery’s Archie Rose Distilling Co., where you can tour the namesake distillery and make your own booze.
There’s another big advantage to looking for romance in a bar: the staff.
“The bartender is often your friend. If you’re at a good bar, they’re often looking out for you,” says Luke Ashton from This Must Be The Place. “I always keep an eye out for people on dates and try to make their experience a fun and memorable one,” says Jemima McDonald from Earl’s Juke Joint in Newtown. “If that means making them do shots with me, then so be it.”
“You can spot a Tinder date a mile away and usually the whole front of house team knows about it, exchanging updates of ‘how’s it going?’” says David Hobbs from Dead Ringer, Surry Hills, and Bulletin Place, Circular Quay. “You may have half the staff rooting for you… I remember one which started awfully, they pushed through it, stayed on the wine and four hours later, they left ‘in a hurry’.”
“You sometimes realise that you have become a particular person’s go-to venue, and you see them over and over again with different people, often sitting in the same seats and ordering the same thing,” he adds. “You can be sure they’re hearing the same stories and lines – there must be tonnes of people who have all unwittingly been on the exact same date.”
“I’d start on the cheaper spectrum of drinks,” she says. “You don’t know how much money your companion has – or hasn’t got.” Plus, proceeding with a more affordable beer or wine “indicates you are approachable”, she adds.
“Order something you're going to enjoy. There'd be nothing worse than ordering a drink that you simply cannot finish, especially after harping on about it trying to impress someone,” says James Irvine from Swillhouse (the hospitality group behind the Baxter Inn, Shady Pines, Restaurant Hubert and Frankie’s Pizza By the Slice). He endorses low-alcohol drinks, such as Spritzes. They’re “very date-friendly” and part of shift towards “not drinking more, but drinking smarter”.
Similarly, Merivale’s Sam Egerton recommends the MarTeeny from Bert’s, which just opened in Newport. “Whenever you start dating, it’s completely understandable that you might need to cool the nerves, but the knack is between balancing the nerves and completely numbing them, so the MarTeeny is perfect: a half-serve martini just to get the conversational juices flowing.”
With their front-row view of relationships-in-progress, it’s unsurprising that bartenders have witnessed plenty of romantic successes.
“We see dates going really well all the time, and my favourite part about it is how forthcoming with info people seem to be,” says McDonald. “Just the other night, after finally prying their faces apart, a guy loudly exclaimed to me that theirs was a first date and he couldn’t believe how much hotter she was in person. He then left to buy her hot chips and came back to keep making out. We see a lot of pashing, it must be the sensual candlelight.”
Everyone seems to have at least one marriage proposal story – and for Irvine, it was gratifying to hear of an ‘I do’ that took place in the same venue the couple first met.
Some incidents are harder to assess, though. Ashton remembers a table where a girl started kissing one guy and then started making out with another fellow in their party once things cooled down with the first guy. “I don’t know if you’d call that a success or a disaster, because the three of them walked out of there together.”
Of course happy endings aren’t guaranteed. “I was working in a bar in the basement of a restaurant. This couple started in the bar, went up for dinner, and then made their fatal mistake – they came back to the bar,” says Harriet Leigh from Archie Rose. “A couple more drinks later, he leaned in to whisper a sweet nothing into her ear… Whatever he said, she leaned back, and fast as a whip, punched him square in the face at full force. She gathered her things and left. And he sat there, as though nothing had happened, with all ten guests staring at him as he casually sipped his beer.”
“There was a date [where] the girl was quiet and the guy was brash and loud. It was obviously a mismatch and not going anywhere and the girl went to the bathroom,” says Hobbs. “The guy pretended to be taking a phone call, got up and left, never came back. The girl was mortified when she realised what had happened – we didn’t charge her.”
At Earl’s Juke Joint, McDonald is vigilant in making sure no one is inappropriate, or sleazy. “There’s a zero-tolerance policy, and I revel in making creepy men uncomfortable and telling them to leave.”
Showing respect is key to a good night, Irvine advises. “Don't assume that people want drinks bought for them as an 'in', it's also a corny cliché and most of the time the people buying drinks are just left with an awkward mouthed-out ‘thank you’.”
Hobbs agrees. “Don’t try and send someone a drink with a little wave. Ever.”
For romantic success, chatting to your bartender is a good way to spark interest from other guests. “You can show that you’re normal, maybe even funny and not a total crazy,” he says.
“Be nice to the staff, because you can tell a lot about a person by the way they treat service people,” says McDonald.
Leigh agrees. “There is nothing hotter than good manners.”
Look for love in all the right places
In these days of app-based dating the idea of meeting someone in the real world can sound fanciful, but we swear, it happens. Of course there's an argument to be made that any bar with alcohol has the potential to be a pick-up bar, but that's not very helpful, so we asked every single person we knew, and a few we didn't, for their favourite fishing spots in Sydney and this is what they told us.