Discovering Sydney’s small bars is a different way to explore hidden Sydney. Over the years, I’ve got to know Sydney’s laneways and their public artworks. More recently, I’ve discovered some of Sydney’s small bars. Many are hidden. They’re down cobbled laneways in courtyards you’d not even know were there. They’re down unassuming sets of stairs and behind simple glass doors.
By finding their location during the day, you’ll find them more easily at night.
My interest began with Maybe Sammy. This cocktail bar in The Rocks has become an Instagram phenomenon. The first time I walked past, I felt intimidated by the line of smartly dressed young people queued up to enter.
A month or so later, the queue was shorter and the people dressed in a range of attire. Feeling ‘stronger’, I joined the queue. Instead of taking up my offer to sit outside, the young woman suggested I’d enjoy being inside. She sat me at the back of the room with a full view of the bar.
As I sipped on my truffle flavoured cocktail, I relaxed and took in the scene. Bar tenders created cocktails with smoke effects. They smiled, they shook and they poured. The music changed. The bartenders lined up and ‘performed’ in time to a familiar beat. The show ended with a loud “Tequila”.
Having experienced Maybe Sammy, I set out to discover more of Sydney’s small bars. Armed with a vague route, I left Town Hall station for the first bar on my list. Being early afternoon, most were closed. I couldn’t find another. Three, which weren’t on my list, deserve mention.
In a small alcove, behind a metal gate, a rustic paneled door marks the entrance to The Lobo. The door, and painted walls leading to Lobo remind me of a rural Cuban scene. Descend the stairs into the basement bar known for its selection of handpicked rums and creative cocktails.
The Duke of Clarence
When I discover this Old English Tavern down a narrow, cobbled laneway off Clarence Street, it is open. I spy a patron through a window, backlit by small wall lamp providing atmospheric lighting to the gloomy interior.
Returning to check it out at night, the mood is quite different. The dark laneway feels almost intimidating. Shadowy forms walk towards me. At the other end, a crowd drinks and chats in the tavern ‘courtyard’.
There’s a queue of people curling around the corner into the laneway. These folk know something I don’t. Later an internet search tells me they were queuing for The Baxter Inn which gets added to my list.
The Baxter Inn
The Baxter Inn specialises in whisky (and as their blurb indicates whiskey). But if whisky isn’t your thing, don’t be put off. They know how to pour a beer, rustle up a cocktail or suggest a great wine too.
The Barber Shop
You’d be forgiven for not knowing what hides behind the shiny metal door at the back of this Barber Shop. When I pass, a young woman with dyed blonde hair fusses over a customer’s hair. The only indication that these premises double as something else at night is a paper sign blu tacked to the window. It advises that the maximum number of patrons is 120.
I plan to “enter through the barber shop” one day soon.
Bare cream-coloured walls line the foyer at 55 York Street. A flight of stairs on my left leads upstairs. Opposite the lift, an information board lists the building occupants. Uncle Ming’s isn’t listed and I leave disappointed.
My daughter knows better and takes me there. Alongside, the foyer at number 55, a set of stairs leads down past a window displaying menswear. We enter Uncle Ming’s through a blue curtain. Red Chinese lanterns spill a red glow onto small alcoves.
Sitting at the bar, we share a plate of dumplings, the busy bartenders providing entertainment. I ask one about the badges pinned to their aprons. There are close to fifty on her apron while her colleague has only a couple. She tells me that patrons who give them badges are rewarded with a shot. Her colleague hasn’t worked at Uncle Ming’s all that long.
Even during the day Stitch is difficult to find. Through a glass door I discover a wall of singer sewing machines set back from the door. They frame wooden swing doors reminiscent of those in old Western movies. One night walking down York Street to show my partner the small bars I’ve discovered, three young women step into Stitch for a drink.
We’ve already been to Appolonia and the Library Bar, so keep Stitch for another time.
Papa Gede’s wasn’t on my list. I find it by mistake. Following my nose as I tend to do, it’s down a cobblestoned laneway in an old courtyard. A tall colourful artwork dominates one of the end walls. The word ‘Eternity’ painted in the script of Arthur Stace climbs up the wall. There’s a red motorbike parked at its base.
The green framed glass door entry to Papa Gede’s is next to the artwork. When I visit, I plan to get a cocktail that comes in a tiki glass. Just for fun.
Since I Left You (SILY)
Over a rooftop from the courtyard where I find Papa Gede’s, I notice another artwork, this one by Fintan Magee. I suspect it decorates the end wall adjacent to SILY which is in another courtyard adjacent to Papa Gede’s. The courtyard is barred by metal gates until opening time. A sign at the end of the laneway announces that board games are available at the bar.
When I discovered Quay Quarter Lanes, I added Appolonia to my list of places to visit. One January night, I descend the stairs into the small brick lined room. It’s full and we lean against a small wooden shelf set into a pillar until a seat becomes available. Watching the animated crowd, I sip my “Love at first sight” cocktail. People of all ages and in all style of dress, from shorts to cocktail attire chat happily enjoying their cocktail of choice.
The Marble Bar
The Marble Bar isn’t one of Sydney’s small bars and it’s not new. People who grew up in Sydney know it well. For me, it’s a recent discovery. Sinking into a plush leather corner lounge, I look around. The rich mahogany bar and green marble archways deserve more than a passing glance.
The Marble Bar wasn’t always in the basement of the Hilton Hotel. Built in 1893, it was originally in the Adams Hotel. Dismantled in 1973and reassembled in its current location, it was restored in 2005.
One of the newer rooftop bars in Sydney, the Library Bar is on top of the Mitchell Library. Views across the botanic gardens to the harbour make this a must visit bar for visitors to Sydney.
It’s best to book if you want a seat with a view. Like other bars, the entrance isn’t obvious. Walk around to Shakespeare Place where a sign and a helpful black suited man will guide you to the lift.
I have a few more of Sydney’s Small Bars to Visit
So far, I’ve enjoyed a drink at five of the twelve bars I’ve listed above. I look forward to experiencing the other seven during the year. Of course there are plenty more small bars in Sydney. Do share your favourites in the comments below. Perhaps I’ll meet you there.
- Many of small bars only open Tuesday or Wednesday through to Saturday. Check their websites for details.
- If you want to explore during the day, follow this list but start at Lobo and end at Maybe Sammy.
- Maybe Sammy: 115 Harrington Street
- The Lobo: 209 Clarence St (Basement)
- The Duke of Clarence: Down a laneway at 152-156 Clarence Street
- The Baxter Inn: Basement opposite the Duke of Clarence at 152-156 Clarence Street
- The Barber Shop: 89 York Street
- Uncle Mings Bar: 55 York St (Lower Ground)
- Stitch: 61 York St
- Papa Gede’s Bar: Down a Laneway at 348 Kent Street (between Market and King)
- SILY (Since I Left You): Down a Laneway at 338 Kent St
- Library Bar: Enter through back of Mitchell Library at 1 Shakespeare Place (rooftop)
- Appolonia: 5-7 Young Street (Basement)