Sydney has turned its basement spaces, heritage courtyards and old butcher shops into hard-to-find speakeasies. You'll be glad you made the effort to seek them out.
By Paul Chai
No matter what your poison is – tiki drinks served by waiters in Hawaiian shirts, niche bottles of whisky or tap beers that live in a jiving juke joint – Sydney has a hidden bar for you. The city has embraced the old-fashioned speakeasy style of bar, and they're packed with drinkers who love a good time.
This recent addition to Sydney's speakeasies likes to stay off the radar, with no website and no menu online (just a limited Instagram presence). Jack’s is a well-kept secret, with a dark interior covered in vintage band posters, private booths and a long bar illuminated by retro Victorian light shades. They are big fans of classic drinks, and you'll get a perfectly made margarita. Food runs to fried chicken with a hint of honey and classic steak frites.
Part record shop, part bar - but first you need to find it. Look out for the door plastered with old records, then descend the stairs to Mojo Record Bar. Here you’ll find a city centre drinking den with an old-school sensibility. Moody lighting, low booth seating and tall stools before the solid wooden bar make it feel like the kind of place that can only get better with time.
Unmarked from outside, low lit within, and with a wall of whisky that requires a tall ladder to get to the top shelf stuff, The Baxter Inn is the perfect spot for a whisky sour and some free pretzels (the only bar snacks on offer). There is even a speakeasy-within-a-speakeasy here in the form of the concealed Whisky Room, where the really good stuff lives.
Earl's hides behind the facade of the old Betta Meats butchery that used to operate here. Now, when you push through the front door, rather than smallgoods and quality meat you get big flavours in the quality cocktails slung from behind the raucous bar. Framed photos, exposed brick and a dark wood bar form the simple decor, but you come to Earl’s for the company. This loud and fun joint models itself on a down-home American bar but with upmarket drinks. Pick something with bourbon in it and you can't go wrong.
This kitsch basement bar has a tropical vibe. The star drinks are a range of exotic tiki concoctions, just like Grandma used to make (well, you can dream). There are candlelit tables, a well trained cocktail crew often decked out in loud Hawaiian shirts, and an intimate bar space that is so cramped you will have no choice but to make new friends. Grab a signature mai tai, a hot jaffle (toasted sandwich) and get in on the joke at Grandma's.
Walking down the cobblestone alleyway, then down the narrow fire escape stairwell to prohibition bar Palmer & Co. feels like being transported to another place and time. Live music plays in the background, black and white photographs line the walls, and antique knick knacks are carefully displayed, all harking back to a forgotten time when liquor was prohibited. At this modern day speakeasy the focus is on cocktails and spirits, with over 30 gins, more than 80 whiskies and more than 40 tequilas and absinthes available.
Hidden behind a bookshelf on Newtown's main King Street, you'll find PG's. With its exposed brick walls, low-lighting and velvet curtains, you'll find an instant refuge from the craziness outside. The chef prepares a bar menu that's mostly too substantial to be considered as such, with offerings including an antipasto platter and house made chicken liver pate - a nod to the French heritage of its founders. The bar serves cocktails and reasonably priced wines by the glass and bottle, with a focus on natural and organic.
One of the more high-concept modern speakeasy entries – you squeeze past the faux sweat shop on street level, down a dark staircase to the bar below – Stitch is packed full of old Singer sewing machines, spools of thread and ornate metal dividers in booths that echo the old machine's design. It's a whisky joint, so grab an old fashioned. If you are in need of a bite, the food is American-inspired heart-cloggers such as posh hot dogs and mac 'n' cheese balls.
Whether you are in the Melbourne operation or the Sydney offshoot, Eau De Vie is like stepping back in time to prohibition days with its vintage glassware, retro drinks list and sharply tailored bar staff. Drinks go even further back in time with the Versailles Experience (gin, absinthe, lemon juice, pear puree and mint served in a silver and glass absinthe fountain) and the Aviator (gin, fresh lemon and dash of rhubarb served with a teeny paper plane as garnish). The surrounds are as classy as the drinks list, with wooden barstools, oil paintings and glass cabinets of paraphernalia.
Once you manage to actually locate the discrete entrance to Old Mate's and ascend the four levels of steep, narrow stairs, you'll be in desperate need of an icy cold beverage. Lucky you're in the right place, as all guests are handed a mini amuse bouche cocktail upon arrival. If you're up for climbing more stairs, there's a rooftop space that offers spectacular views across the city skyline. The cocktail list is curated and classic, and the bar menu is hearty, with a rotating selection of deli meats and ploughman’s plates, as well as a “waffle croque monsieur”, made with roasted cauliflower bechamel, double-smoked ham and parmesan.
Even the font that Since I Left You uses speaks to the time of prohibition and the Cotton Club, and this early adopter of Sydney's small bar laws has been a firm favourite among the city drinking crowd since it opened. The big drawcard is the courtyard with original 19th century architecture, strings of festive fairy lights and live bands. Cocktails are cheeky twists on favourites, such as the Benedict Cucumberbatch (mezcal, cucumber, rosemary and lime). Food is crostini and toasted sandwiches.
Tilly Devine, infamous Sydney brothel madam and organised crime boss, would have been running speakeasies back in her day, but her modern namesake is an altogether more sophisticated, and less scary, proposition. Down a Darlinghurst laneway the Love, Tilly Devine set-up is simple: white-washed brick, top-end charcuterie and lovingly selected wines. Grab the prime spot at the window and tour the world via the 300-strong wine list, none of which you can go wrong with.