Nightlife Sydney The rise of the Sydney small bar

Small bars prove that bigger isn't always better.
Small bars prove that bigger isn't always better. | © Photo detail: Corridor Newtown

Sydney’s nightlife is changing. More and more people are giving up on the big, characterless pubs of the past in favour of smaller, more intimate alternatives. According to the most recent NSW Government review into Small Bar Legislation, Sydney has gone from having no small bars to having well over 100 in under eight years.

Lord Mayor Clover Moore has been outspoken regarding Sydney’s current state of flux, “Late night culture in Sydney is changing and our reputation is growing as a city with quirky small bars, contemporary dining and vibrant culture.” Once only known for it’s iconic harbour and beautiful beaches, Sydney is now in the midst of carving an identity out for itself on the world stage as a cultural hub with a thriving nightlife. The introduction of the lockout laws in 2014, aimed at reducing alcohol fuelled violence, meant that operating hours for late night venues were reduced, and made it impossible for larger scale venues to get licenses. As over 40 large late-night institutions closed their doors, Sydneysiders were outraged and Clover Moore was among them, labelling the laws as a “sledgehammer”. Only one type of venue was exempt from the license freeze – the small bar.

A NEW BREED OF VENUE

Small bars are by no means a new concept. For decades they have been enjoyed by night crawlers all over the world. In comparison to Melbourne, a city renowned for it’s small bar scene since the 80’s, Sydney was seriously late to the trend. It wasn’t until 2008 that the first small bars started appearing. This came off the back of widespread community campaigns aimed at providing more intimate venues for people to enjoy. Huge pubs and clubs had dominated the landscape and the city was aching for change. But the shift wasn’t easy. The small bar license category didn’t even exist until 2013. Before then small bars had been walking a fine line, operating under restaurant licenses with the the ability to serve alcohol without food. When small bar legislation finally came into affect in 2013, venues were still burdened with heavy restrictions. These included a 60-person mass capacity limit and a strict 12am close. The limits still exist today, and have meant that small bars have continued to open and operate under the wrong licenses. The City of Sydney council puts the number of small bars operating under their specific license at just 21 percent.

Small bars often use local craft liquor products. Small bars often use local craft liquor products. | © Corridor Newtown Max Younger bought Sydney small bar Corridor in 2015, when he was only 28 and working as a studio director for ABC news. A fan of small bars himself, he decided to get involved when he noticed that small bars were on the rise. “I think that small bars have come at the right time. People are growing out of the adolescence of binge drinking culture. The Australian public aren’t drinking like they used to. Small bar popularity and the craft beer and liquor movement have run hand in hand. Small bars are challenging everyone to up their drinks and entertainment game”.

A WELCOME CHANGE

Andrew, 29, regularly visits small bars and remembers a different time. “A typical Friday night five years ago simply meant going to your local hotel. The atmosphere was set by the distant sound of pokie machines and a jukebox playing the same old songs. Every pub on every corner had the same décor, and the same things to offer. There was a real lack of imagination”
 
Nowadays, Andrew is spoiled for choice. There are hundreds of cosy meeting places hidden in pockets around the city, ranging from the oddly specific to the award winning. Small bars are lauded for their craft beer, skilled bartenders and eccentric themes. These days there are venues in Sydney suited for every taste. There are small bars disguised as speakeasies, tropical islands, and even living rooms.
Andrew says “Small bars are everywhere now. It’s great because they’ve incorporated theme into their atmosphere and into what they’re serving”.

Bartenders at small bars are highly skilled and can personalise your drinking experience. Bartenders at small bars are highly skilled and can personalise your drinking experience. | © Corridor Newtown It isn’t just the original themes that people love. Max thinks that small bars are making it easier for strangers to connect. “Small bars are more personal, you’re getting a more intimate experience. It’s easier to get a clear narrative about the venue and their menu. Simply looking at the space, the less people that you have in a room the easier it is to connect with them. If I was in a room with five people, I would feel compelled to talk with them, where on the other hand if I’m in a room with 120 people, I’ll just talk to the person next to me.”

WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD?

According to NSW Premier Mike Baird, the number of small bars has doubled since the introduction of the lockout laws and the trend is only set to rise with The City of Sydney pushing for less restrictions on small venues.
 
In a submission to a state government review of small bar liquor laws, Clover Moore has proposed to double the occupancy of small bars to reach 120 patrons, along with lengthening the hours of operation to 2am. This would be welcome news to bar owners like Max “The difficulty is always licensing. The big guys always have it stacked in their favour. They have bigger capacities and less restrictive licenses.”
  Max Younger, owner of Corridor Newtown. Max Younger, owner of Corridor Newtown. | © Chloe Michele But even the big pubs have taken notice of the change in peoples drinking habits, with many of them opening up micro bars within their walls to keep up with the new normal.
 
Max is optimistic, “The future of small bars is looking really bright. Every time I go out I see new venues opening and doing new innovative things, challenging patrons to try something new.”