Small bars, big deal

Sydney has a serious infatuation with something termed locally as 'the small bar'. But I think the term is actually a misnomer because not all of the city's bars which are labelled thus are, in fact, small.

You often hear the term erroneously applied to any venue which isn't a hotel or an RSL. This handle, you see, has been well publicised and marketed by local bodies like City of Sydney and Destination NSW in an attempt to show tourists – especially Victorian urbanites – that Sydney has a vibrant nightlife culture.

Unfortunately, I think 'small bar' is meaningless to those outside of NSW because it doesn't have the same sense of being progressive and cool elsewhere. And what's the big deal with a bar being small anyway?

Melbourne has been doing 'small bars' since the late '80s and our neighbours in New Zealand have been doing it since the '90s too. And bars of diminutive proportions often are just a reflection on the budget of the owner rather than a crusade to bring culture to a dull bar landscape.

Five years on from the legislation change which has allowed Sydney's new wave of bars to thrive, perhaps it's time that we re-examined the use of this term. What has changed – more important than size – in my mind is the type of bar owners out there.

There are new philosophies, approaches and new concepts from a new dynamic generation of bar operators. It's the lower start-up capital needed to open a bar that has diversified the bar industry and our city's latest watering holes shouldn't necessarily be diminished by the prefix 'small'. Take a look at the city's latest wave of bars – all three arguably small – that are doing big things to the way you enjoy a night out in Sydney.

Baxter Inn
Basement/154 Clarence St, Sydney

Opened last November, the Baxter Inn is an underground hideout and whisky den that can cater for up to 120 patrons. Entering this underground joint you're immediately transported to another place and time – you can't help but feel you should be dicing in one corner and fixing a boxing match in the other whilst sipping on their range of around 300 whiskies. This vintage sports bar (no, there ain't no big screens) is named after James 'Whitey' Bulger, a big crime boss from South Boston who spent 16 years on the run under the alias Thomas F. Baxter. He was caught in June last year at age 82. It's a great story and the bar itself is an instant classic – you'd swear it's been hidden down that fire escape for years. Verdict: Not small, but excellent.

109 Regent Street, Chippendale


Quietly opening its doors last October, Freda's is a tippling haunt and eatery that has put 'Chipper' on the imbiber's map. Licensing has stipulated that they're allowed to cater for up to 120 patrons and they do so amiably with well executed cocktails, excellent craft beer available on tap or in the bottle and food based around their excellent house-baked bread. The venue makes use of a characterful warehouse space that's taken shape under the watchful eyes of architects Philip and David Abram, with detailing influenced by contemporary Japanese architects and mid-twentieth century Scandinavian design. It's small enough that you'll have familiar faces greeting you every time, but a 'small bar'? No.

The Little Guy
87 Glebe Point Road, Glebe

Another recent addition to Sydney's drinking scene, The Little Guy is small on size but big on hospitality. Owners Anna Scott and Dynn Szmulenicz are always on hand to greet you and serve you up a drink making this one of the friendliest little locals around. The venue which has taken over one of Glebe's old shop fronts built back in the 1880s (which Szmulenicz delights in telling us was built by gentleman going by the name of R. Thirst) has a series of small rooms which all can cater for up to 100 patrons. The construction of the venue makes it appear much smaller than it actually is, but 'small' in this case is an apt descriptor.

What are your favourite new venues, large or small?