Could Sydney ever replicate Melbourne’s thriving micro-bar culture? And more importantly, would it want to? David Mills goes in search of an answer.
The latest hip drinking establishment in Melbourne is a hole-in-the-wall venue called The Croft Institute. Situated on a lane, off a lane, off a lane, off Little Bourke Street, The Croft Institute has a cool but friendly ambience and a high-school-science-block aesthetic (beakers and test tubes line the glass display cabinets on the walls). The drinks aren’t cheap and it gets crowded pretty quickly, but The Croft attracts Melburnian barflies like iron filings to a magnet. In the so-hip-it-hurts world of the Melbourne bar scene, The Croft is a genuine hit.
This month. Melburnians like to deride Sydneysiders for their relentless pursuit of the new and the novel, but Melbourne’s hip young things devour new drinking establishments at an astonishing rate. A bar can go from being unheard-of to seeming ubiquity in the space of a week -“ and can pass into being pass?ust as fast.
The Melbourne bars are delightfully obscure. They won’t tell you where they’re located: you have to find them. They revel in their own oddity, with kooky, Wallpaper*-inspired design themes, and they luxuriate in names like Honkytonk, Yelza and Borscht, Vodka & Tears.
The Melbourne bars rock. Why don’t we have them in Sydney?
According to Brian Carney from Liquor Licensing Victoria, Melbourne’s bar culture took off around 1995 -“ partly due to consumer demand, and partly because of changes to the state’s liquor licensing laws. Liquor licences in Victoria do not have to be tied to the provision of meals, and come relatively cheap: an application fee and a first-year licence cost around $500, and it only costs $150 to renew each year. There are an estimated 250 bars in the Melbourne CBD alone.
Liquor licences for bars that do not serve food have not been issued in New South Wales for five years. Most cocktail bar licensees in the Sydney metropolitan area must also hold a restaurant licence (worth $500) and pay a one-off fee for a Dine or Drink Authority -“ worth $15,000 for larger venues and $10,000 for smaller (under 100 seat) establishments.
Carney says that the popularity of the shopfront bar is starting to put pressure on some of Melbourne’s larger nightclubs. They’re under pressure because the demand from the 23-up age group is shifting to the bars, he says -“ to the extent that some clubs are putting new boutique bars in to win back some of the market.
Sydney’s drinking nightlife couldn’t be more different. Sin City’s bar culture clusters around larger, more flashy venues: the Establishment, the Grand Pacific Blue Room and Gilligans are just three examples.
Liquor industry writer Drew Lambert says smaller venues find it harder to survive in Sydney. Liquor licensing is more expensive here, rents are more expensive, and therefore most places have to boost their drinks prices, and the bigger venues survive, he says.
Popular Sydney watering holes tend to be bold and brassy, Lambert contends -“ and any new joint without a view, a publicist and a $1m fit-out from Burley Katon Halliday tends to be consigned to the scrapheap before it even opens.
Naren Young, the editor of trade publication Australian Bartender Magazine (and the forthcoming bar lifestyle magazine Liquid), says Sydney bars tend to be more chic and design-oriented than their Melbourne counterparts but less comfortable.
A lot of the newer places are standing room only, and not conducive to sitting around for hours, he says.
The Sydney and Melbourne bar scenes influence each other, Young says -“ a relationship formed from equal parts friendly rivalry and mutual respect. But Sydney definitely leads the way in drinking, he argues: Sydney drinkers are more open to new trends, and overseas bartenders, who tend to gravitate here rather than Melbourne, bring their ideas for smart cosmopolitan drinking with them.
However, Young says he would like to see a few more small, comfortable bars open in Sydney. Even four or five new bars like that would make a difference to Sydney’s bar culture, he says.
But Sydney’s bar scene will never replicate Melbourne’s. Our watering holes are distinct and unique in their own right and we love them as they are.
A friend of mine tells me that the difference between Sydney and Melbourne bar culture is far from a trivial issue; the difference, she argues, is emblematic of the difference between the cities themselves. Sydney is like the big, flashy venue that everyone knows about, whereas Melbourne resembles the more secluded, boutique establishments.
Maybe Melbourne’s embrace of the self-consciously cool shopfront bar is an inadvertent admission -“ an admission that they will never do big, bold and brassy in the way that Sydney can. An admission that if they can’t be sexy and seductive, they’ll at least opt for pale and interesting. An admission, let’s face it, of defeat.
We’ve won! Sydney is better than Melbourne because our bars are so much bigger. QED. Done. Solved. Feels great, doesn’t it?