It’s hard to believe that it was only 4 years ago that if you wanted to buy a drink at an establishment, they had to also sell food. For many years, this was the norm. This usually meant that enjoying a glass of wine or a vodka soda was either, forking out $200 at a fancy restaurant or enjoying your drink to the lively buzz of poker machines.
However, in December of 2007 a new liquor law was passed (which came into play in July the following year) to allow establishments to sell alcohol without food, as well as a substantial drop in the price of a liquor license. Under this new law, poker machines were also prohibited from small bars and pubs. This new and much more flexible license made it significantly easier for small pubs and bars to open, ushering in a new urban culture of drinking. And from this, the number of small bars of Sydney grew… and grew.
[On a side note, as of a couple of weeks ago, Adelaide is about to introduce an almost identical law.]
For the last 4 years small bars have sprouted across Sydney, ranging from affordable hole-in the-wall bars to slightly larger and arguably more upmarket cocktail bars. Throughout the city, cocktails bars are plentiful and when asking for a gin and tonic, the bartender might query to which of the 9 gins you would like. Small bars have become an unassuming abode where gentlemen can enjoy a drink alongside appetisers with good company and to the sounds of a live jazz quartet or deep house DJ.
Along with the new urban drinking culture, there has been a transformation in the role of the humble bartender. Across these bars and pubs, bartenders must just not be more knowledgeable but also a lot more personable. While the degree of knowledge required may differ from bar to bar, it seems that a reasonable knowledge of cocktails, wine and spirits is definitely required for the job, with a lot of bartenders creating their own signature cocktails and delicious combinations. The smaller environment also allows bartenders to build a rapport with customers and notably locals, creating a better atmosphere within the small but lively bar.
Over the past few weeks I have looked at some of Sydney’s favourite small bars, choosing 3 of the most distinguished bars from each major part of Sydney. It is noted that the small bars found in City North, CBD and City East were considerably more impressive than those found in City West and The Northern Beaches but that’s not to say that they are not worth going to. The Versatile Gent will be posting a new part of Sydney each week, so watch the website for more.
This week we are looking at City North, this includes Mosman to Kirribilli and Chatswood.
1. Honey Rider – Neutral Bay
230 Military Road
Neutral Bay 2089
Honey Rider somewhat sits on the border between Neutral Bay and Cremorne, nestled among restaurants and real estate agents on Military Road. Before Honey Rider even opened it was in the papers, with owners battling with North Sydney council over a smoking room. North Sydney council wanted somewhere for smokers and demanded that Honey Rider have a room for them. However, Owners Phil and Olga Cahill demanded a smoke free venue, and eventually they got it.
Even from the outside, Honey Rider looks beautifully retro and almost out-of-place in Neutral Bay. The walls are decorated in a homely fashion, royal blue paint with a wide assortment of ornaments ranging from a deer head to clocks. The walls of the previous Indian take away shop have been salvaged and have been incorporated well into the assortment of ornaments, further evoking the 60’s feel.
The staff are very relaxed, friendly and very chatty. The atmosphere is very relaxed and talkative but not noisy with the bulk of the crowd being older couples and small groups of friends.
Nearly everyone in the room seemed to be drinking cocktails, so I got on that bandwagon with ‘The Eastside’ ($16), consisting of Tanqueray gin muddled with lime, mint and cucumber. While it was quite sweet, it was ridiculously refreshing with the cucumber complimenting the Tanqueray well. Honey Rider offers 4 craft beers on tap for $7 as well as a small and largely Australian wine list for $8-10 per glass. They also have awesome simple pizzas for around $10 each.
While quite small, Honey Rider is a beautifully retro venue with a large cocktail list and lovely simple pizzas, and at a bonus, it’s completely smoke-free.
Go if: You want to be like a young Sean Connery, straight out of a scene from Dr. No.
Stay at home if: You don’t like small crowded areas
2. The White Hart – Neutral Bay
19-21 Grosvenor St
Neutral Bay 2089
The White Hart joined the Neutral Bay small bar dense scene in 2011, the same year it took out Bartenders Magazine’s ‘small bar of the year’ award. This bar is a careful collaboration between 4 very experienced names in hospitality; Danny Russo, Grant Collins, James Young and Paul Kelly, each with respective areas of experience from food to bar design. The White Hart can very simply be described as a 40:60 split between an 1850 English pub and a contemporary cocktail bar, low lit and simple but also very quirky, the walls littered with oddities such as cricket bats, tennis rackets and a 102-year-old dart board (unfortunately not for playing with though).
Grant has assembled a bartending team with a tonne of talent and a wealth of knowledge that enable The White Hart to produce some outstanding drinks and in-house recipes. There is a commendable spirit and wine list, mead, house-made tonic and ginger beer, as well as an assortment of cocktails ranging from a simple Polish Mule to what they call ‘ The Breakfast Mojito’ – a deconstructed cocktail. The Breakfast Mojito ($19) is a beautifully unique invention by Grant Collins with the ingredients individually removed and reinterpreted. It begins with a mojito flavoured toothpaste and toothbrush, followed by a neon blue rum and mint mouthwash and a fizzing sugar covered meat leaf, all finished with a rum citrus chaser in a syringe. Definitely something worth trying.
Along with the comprehensive selection of drinks, there is also a simple Tapas and Brasserie Menu. Entrees include light freshly shucked oysters with a cucumber mint salsa ($16) and with mains being slightly heartier such as roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, with all the trimmings ($29).
It’s easy to see how The White Hart took out the ‘small bar of the year award’. With the high-quality dining and impressive cocktails, if you’re in Neutral Bay, The White Hart is the place to be.
Go if: You like quirky cocktails and high-quality casual dining
Stay at home if: you’re on a shoestring budget
3. The Botanist – Kirribilli
17 Willoughby St
The Botanist opened not too long ago in November 2012, a product of two gentlemen Ben Carroll and Hamish Watts. Caroll and Watts are also the team behind Bondi Hardware, the rustic restaurant and bar, nestled in Hall St, Bondi Beach. The Botanist maybe isn’t as much of a small bar as The White Hart and Honey Rider, but has everything you will expect from a top-notch contemporary bar and restaurant.
I went to The Botanist on a Friday night and it was considerably busy – and loud. It was so loud in fact that I struggled to hold a conversation with someone who was 1m away, and I just ended up texting anyway (oh 21st century). This is probably due to the low ceiling and concrete walls and flooring, making much of the sound bounce around.
The interior is littered with ferns and flowers, with the name evoking the feel of the venue (much alike Bondi Harware), The Botanist collecting an assortment of plants and flowers. There is a moss feature wall, wooden battening with the bathroom smelling like a florist giving it some what of an overgrown gazebo feel. While the plants are arranged neatly, there appears to be no single specific flora theme within the bar, perhaps sticking to the cluttered feel of a botanist’s study. Apart from the abundance of plants, the interior is mainly concrete with huge wooden tables, well-worn but polished.
Aligned to the theme, the drinks menu is beautifully designed, with impeccable topography and illustrations. The drinks are listed by specimen name, origin and variety accompanied by appropriate illustrations. The predominately Australian wine list is small with just over half available by the glass ($8-12). Being a massive fan of espresso martinis, I tried the Vanilla Bean Espresso Martini ($17) that was just as I imagined, the vanilla bean flavour not too overwhelming but certainly accompanying the espresso well.
The food is a weird mix of cultures; curries, burgers and even quesadillas all lining the menu. The share plates were very popular, the lamb back strap and Tunisian spiced couscous ($20) a definite favourite for both the crowds and myself. Neatly presented, tender and easy to eat; it’s a well-executed simple dish, though omitting the soggy couscous.
If you’re looking for a night out amongst the North Shore socialites, look no further than The Botanist, flora themed drinks and simple dishes are a recipe for a quality evening. Just remember your earplugs or hidden telepathy skills.
Go if: You like well thought out interior spaces and themed cocktails
Stay at home if: you want a romantic evening to talk over a bottle of wine
All images sourced from bar’s respective websites