Balmain has always been the domain of the pub but with small bars starting to crop up, local watering holes have had to to up the ante and offer drinkers something beyond a schooner and a kick up the arse.
The rambling Exchange Hotel wears many hats. There is a cocktail bar with a wide verandah on the first floor for more upscale drinking on the Peninsula; a public bar downstairs where football games and boxing matches are screened; an enclave filled with brocade armchairs and thick curtains, and now a separate little bar space known as the Craftsman.
They put the 'craft' in Craftsman with the decorating scheme – it has a hand-made, vintagey feel – rather than a mess of craft beers on offer. On tap you can get three James Squire varieties – golden ale, pale ale and pilsner – plus your standard domestics such as Super Dry. There are spirits and house wines as well, but for anything complicated it might be worth hoofing it up the stairs. Beer or whisky feels most appropriate here, though a G'n'T wouldn’t look out of place.
For the most part, old Britannia is the over-riding theme, but wooden barrels, a piano and scarred tables just crying out for a hand of poker and a few deals done over a spit and handshake add a touch of saloon chic.
Raised booths are set into what looks like a boat hull and candlelight glints off a row of smoky mirrors above the decorative log fireplace. Along one wall sits a metal grille with all manner of knick knacks affixed to it. There are old tools – mallets, spades, rules, drill bits, saw handles – as well as animal skulls, antlers and a lonely tennis racquet. It’s like someone’s abandoned, lakeside summer house.
They even throw in a little nautical for good measure with deadly looking rusted steel bunting, some rope lights and brass lanterns.
Once inside the Craftsman you could easily forget that you are in only a fraction of the enormous hotel. The black roof makes the room feel intimate even when it is quiet and being at the back of the pub you are secluded from the hubbub of the busy intersection outside.
Up the back is a sunroom that changes style again. Cane and wicker lounges with tropical prints gives it a '50s Hawaiian feel, nobly assisted by the giant ferns creating private nooks for trysting couples. There is often live music on weekends – jazz and soul for the most part – but it is kept low key. Failing that they have a cracking playlist of '50s and '60s rock’n’roll to set the mood.
Aim for a Friday or Saturday if you are planning on specifically drinking here. The opening hours of this part of the pub can be somewhat mercurial but even if it is shut, head upstairs for a prime position on the wide balcony – one of the best drinking spots in Balmain.