Get summer started with a bang and a fizz at these great Sydney bars
121 BC is an altogether perfect example of what a wine bar could and should be. Yes, it’s small, which means you either need to go early or late – don’t even think about trying for a dinner seating – but what this Italian wine bar does that no one else in town seems to have replicated is create an irresistible pull matched with a positive, fizzing atmosphere. That’s in no small part thanks to manager and sommelier Giorgio De Maria, who zips around the bar pouring his selection of crazy and interesting, often biodynamic, Italian wines. He’s like an Italian hummingbird. An Italian hummingbird armed with nebbiolo. We're fans of ordering by the glass here – a fairly inexpensive way of trying lots of stuff, given the list rarely tilts over $10.
There’s no bar quite as accommodating as Baxter Inn when it comes to twirling around in the small hours of the morning with a giant man in britches posing as an Edwardian prince, or hunkering down early evening in one of the plush booths with a Ploughman’s. They’re friendly to everyone, are always truly pleased to see whoever is drinking there and more than anything, really want to ply you with deliciousness. Part craft beer bar, part whiskey den and part old-school Chicago-inspired slosh house, Baxter has attracted some of the city’s best bartenders to work here over the years. Add some rollicking rhythm and blues out of the best sound systems you’ll find in any Sydney bar, and you’ve got yourself a very fine time indeed.
It’s a bar the size of a shoebox, with nary enough space to swing a cat and more fruit drinks on one menu than should be allowed. And yet it all magically works. The drinks menu is written up on butcher's paper and is an ever-changing list of whatever’s delicious and fresh on the day – they make a certain number of drinks, and when they’re gone, they’re gone. It’s a fruit-forward menu here, but such is the skill of this team, they can serve you a mango Daiquiri and you won’t feel a fool. You’ll feel like a mango-loving champion drinking an amazing cocktail.
This is the New Orleans-inspired bar you’ve been waiting for, with a voodoo twist and a lick of hip hop, and Juleps are slung as quickly as middies of Reschs and shots of ice-cold Fernet Branca. You’ve also got the best goddamn Piña Colada this side of Puerto Rico. It’s equal parts condensed milk and coconut cream, lime and pineapple juice with a whole bunch of rum – blended. You may just go for a Japanese craft beer or go super local with a Young Henrys. It’s a beautiful looking room, with its dark, carved wood arches behind the bar, sweet Art Deco lamps lighting the room in a hazy warm glow and old black-and-white framed photos of vintage cars and jazz greats.
So we’re more than a little in love with Lobo Plantation, the new basement rum bar in the CBD with a whole lot of swagger. With its emerald walls, rattan lamps and bentwood bar stools, Lobo captures the faded grandeur of a Caribbean summerhouse. Lobo’s a bar heavy on the details: Art Nouveau-style metal drip trays catch spills behind the heavy wooden bar and they use really beautiful glassware, from the tiny tasting glasses and tumblers to favouring sweet little etched glass jugs to stir their cocktails in. Most importantly, the team here prize friendly service as highly as delicious drinks. We’re not sure if we’re just victims of the power of suggestion but it feels like the London bar Sydney’s been waiting for.
It’s pretty easy to become paralysed with choice when staring down the beer list at the Local Taphouse. There are 21 craft brews on tap, including a cider or two and a hand-pumped ale, and a whole bunch more in bottles. The bartenders here are full of helpful hints, or you can buckle up for a beer-based adventure and get a tasting paddle. You mark down the five beers that take your fancy and they will appear in 90ml serves, ordered from light to dark. This is also an excellent spot for an alfresco Sunday roast. Otherwise the food menu is hearty meaty dishes at night, burgers, pizzas and schnitzels at lunch, and pork crackling if you just need something to keep one hand busy while you do beer curls with the other.
Think of Neighbourhood, the Bondi bar offering excellent cocktails in fairly modest surrounds, as the late, great Bayswater Brasserie in board shorts. While you might be dosing yourself with a spicy barbecue Margarita (that hombre’s got some kick), the person next to you might just suck down a beer or a cider, or a vodka lime and soda. Want to see the bar team flex a little muscle? Order a Staten Island. A riff on an old Bayswater drink, it’s a balanced shake-up of bitterness and funk mixing rye, house-smoked maple syrup (over apple wood, no less), egg white and bitters. And make sure to order at least two cheeseburger toasties (one for each hand). Love thy Neighbourhood.
The towering brackets of shining Reidel glasses, the house-made syrups and sodas, the astounding bar food and professional staff operating the shakers – all of it adds up to a benchmark cocktail bar. And then there are the drinks. A Pina Nueva is a short cocktail of coconut washed rum, fresh lime topped with pineapple soda and fresh hops from the nearby Lord Nelson brewery. It’s all freshness and tang. Order a single sardine on toast or a bowl of crisp onion rings with a side of ketchup, or keep it super-simple with a chicken sandwich on soft white bread and a glass of white Burgundy.
If ever there was a bar where you can don your Hawaiian shirt and rattan ‘Punch Guy’ hat, it’s here. It’s the sort of bar John Belushi would have taken his clothes off in and been applauded – and probably even joined by – the bartenders. It’s the place where girls voluntarily de-bra in exchange for a free drink. This is Tio’s – the Surry Hills tequila den that keeps Sydney thirsty for more. Drink yours straight, the beer on the side, or in a cocktail. You’ll be treated to a crew of fun-loving bartenders in various states of undress, from a full Mariachi outfit to loud shirts and shorts, to a simple Mexican poncho (don’t ask what’s under it).
Star Sydney bartenders Max Greco and Luke Ashton have ripped off the shirt-stays and suspenders and traded them in for cut-off denim, trucker hats and a hefty fistful of rock’n’roll. The drink names are all plays on classic tunes and many of them lean on herbaceous Italian bitters and liqueurs. They’ll also whip out a Tommy’s Margarita or a perfectly perfect Manhattan very happily. There’s also an Esky full of tinnies sitting on the bar just begging to be necked – maybe even chased with something from the extensive rum collection. Vasco is fun – pure and simple.