Has the methadone clinic moved down a block? No folks, it hasn’t. That queue of people rolling out of a dark, nondescript laneway on Clarence Street is for Baxter Inn – the most anticipated Sydney bar opening since, well, anything ever. This basement-level hooch sanctuary is brought to you by Anton Forte and Jason Scott – the two bartenders best known for opening Shady Pines Saloon. The duo have a strange knack for creating great bars. To them, it’s a simple recipe of nice staff + tasty drinks = success. And for some mysterious reason, this combination works as a perfect anti-douche mechanism. They could open a bar on the worst street in Sydney and there’d be people tripping over to get in and hand over their money. And we’re among them.
As much as we love their other bar, we’re also happy to report this is a completely different offering. Shady Pines is a haven of taxidermy, country music, house pours of Jack Daniels out of a cow’s hoof and tinnies of Coopers out of a vintage washtub. Baxter Inn, on the other hand, is a candle-lit basement bar with thick carpet, jazz and blues and toilets with some of the best acoustics in town. It’s kind of modelled on an old-school American Irish sports bar, only with no sport and much better whisky.
We’re not kidding about those acoustics, by the way – the tiled-and-wood-panelled bathrooms are each equipped with their own PA. They sound so good and are so nice, we’re almost tempted to set up camp in there. But that would mean missing out on the service from a team that includes Enrique Mendoza (last seen working the room at grill house to the stars, Porteño) and Lewis Jaffrey, who was previously wrestling with the rum selection at Grandma’s. Not forgetting that curly mop-topped bag of trouble, Forte himself, who’s lost the shorts and battered Vans in favour of collar, cuffs and bow tie. And check the walls covered in old black-and-white boxing photos and trophy cabinets filled with awards for prize pigs and all manner of other things the two bartending geniuses have picked up along the way.
There are tables and chairs dotted around the room (which takes around 140 drinkers) as well as little rests lining the brick pillars for your drinks, but it’s all about stalking around the bar. Sure, you’ll get fantastic service no matter where you sit, but it’s fun to watch the action. See the bartenders ding an old boxing bell and play a few notes on a battered old trumpet, sounding off for staff shot time.
As at Shady Pines, cocktails (under “Nancy Times” in the menu) are reliably awesome but not the focus of the bar. There’s a short list at the front of the book, with some of our favourites (South Sides, Americanos, Tommy’s Margaritas, Gibsons) and the guys will make you most anything you’d want to ask for (how about a Salty Dog, all sump-oily cold gin and salt and lime?). But our pick’s a Toronto – rye, Fernet Branca and bitters – get yours with sweet vermouth for a twist on the classic. Here, it’s all about wine’n’whisky’n’beer. Unlike Shady, the Baxter has beer on tap, as well as their own cellar featuring a nearly entirely Aussie collection including some wines and ports that haven’t seen the light of day since the 1920s. Baxter also stock 360 different whiskeys with more to come. That’s one for nearly every day of the year.
Pretzels are the complimentary snack of choice here, though there’s word out there about a ploughman’s. We’re most keen to see some hams hanging from the ceiling and if a jar of pickled eggs made it onto the bar we could die happy. While you wouldn’t call the Baxter inexpensive (a Lord Nelson 3 Sheets, the cheapest beer on the list, will set you back $8, and cocktails are $17), somehow you don’t feel the sting. You just can’t put a price on fun times.