David Whitley explores the mushrooming small bar scene in Australia’s biggest city – and discovers that a change of licensing laws has led to drinking dens with character.


There’s no carpet on the floor, the walls have their brick gleefully exposed, and all around are the heads of moose, cows and wild boar. The man with the enormous comedy moustache at the bar takes his time describing the range of drinks on offer, genuinely knowing his stuff and says it’s fine if we want to bring some food in. Shady Pines is an audacious attempt to bring a semi-ironic saloon bar to an underground cellar just off Sydney’s gay epicentre, Oxford Street. It’s in a quiet side lane, and the signage consists of a single bit of paper with the name scrawled on.


It doesn’t feel like a Sydney pub at all. Generally, these fall into three categories. The first is the utter dive where people go to play on pokie machines (the ubiquitous gaming machine curse of Australia) and offer “I might stab you” looks to strangers. Then there are the giant beer barns that feel like a small city in themselves and the showpony bars where airheads go to look beautiful and get bought drinks by sleazy Neanderthals in suits.


Shady Pines is quite clearly in none of these categories, and it is not alone. In a bin lane between the RM Williams and Oakley stores on George Street, there is a door with a strip of Astroturf above it. This, it turns out, is The Grasshopper.


Its owner, Martin O’Sullivan is the driving force behind the Sydney Small Bar Owners’ Association, a collection of chaps and chapesses running similar bars. They’re mushrooming at the moment – especially in the CBD and Surry Hills – and Martin says that if I’d turned up a couple of weeks later, I’d be able to find another four or five.


The small bars are branded as a ‘scene’ but each is very distinctive. The only things in common are that you can’t fit many people in and there are no pokies. The Grasshopper has a French-style bistro upstairs, while downstairs it’s all about cocktails and bizarre martial arts photos all over the walls. So what has happened to the bars in Sydney since I left?


Martin explains that it’s all down to a change in licensing laws that came into practice in late 2008. “Before then, the minimum to get in was a million dollars. Owning a bar was reserved for the elite few with rich parents. Now you can get a small bar licence for a place with under 120 capacity and no pokies, and the game has changed.


“You can open up with around $100,000 if you want to. People can set out what they want to do, and do it – they’re not betting everything on it, so can afford to take risks.”


What tends to happen is that the bars reflect the personalities of their owners, and can afford to test out a few new concepts – the Grasshopper, for example, serves some cocktails in jars shaped like teddy bears. Not every bar is going to be for everyone, but they’re certainly distinctive. And they’re doing well, attracting drinkers with a degree of intelligence, discernment and lack of attitude. The people, in other words, who have previously had to settle for the beer barns or show pony bars due to lack of alternatives. 


Other small bars worth checking out include the Bondi Speakeasy in Bondi, the Foxhole and Grandma’s in the City and Love Tilly Devine in East Sydney. But new ones are cropping up all the time – the trick is to find one, then ask someone at the bar for other recommendations.


More on the Grasshopper here