After the first laneway sightings in Melbourne in the mid-1990s, the Australian small bar scene seemed to be all about the Melbourne-style bar. Since those early days, changes to licensing laws in almost every state have led to small bar culture spreading across the country with an admirable take-no-prisoners voracity that would do a virus proud. Even better, the culture has made like a chameleon and adapted seamlessly to the geography, climate, culture, history and whims of every town it colonises.
Now the only Melbourne-style bars you'll find are in Melbourne. And while bars in Sydney and Brisbane, Canberra and Adelaide, Perth and Hobart have all put their own spin on the small-bar colour wheel, the one thing they all have in common is that they've ushered in an era that's big on skill, service, quality booze, innovative design and carefully curated good times. Because of the small bars, we're drinking better (and not necessarily more) than ever. The punters obviously love the variety. As do we. Here are 25 of the best, in no particular order.
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Bad Frankie offers an eye-opening all-Australian spirits collection – from Tasmanian whisky through to WA absinthe – often put to good use in original cocktails. Consume with something from the jaffle menu and feel a surge of national pride.
141 Greeves Street, Fitzroy, 03 9078 3866,
In a lane off a lane, this tiny, dark and handsome Italian-style watering hole serves a small but meticulous range of cocktails, coffee, art and sweet and salty snacks. With only a couple of seats, it's often standing/leaning room only.
20 Presgrave Place, Melbourne, 03 9428 0055,
Neighbour (and offspring) of Belle's Hot Chicken, this stylish 22-seat wine bar is smitten with natural wine, from the fine to the funky. The tiny open kitchen dishing up skin contact-appropriate snacks creates an intimate dinner party vibe.
150 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy, 03 9077 0788,
This is a bar as performance, as art, as idea, melding marble and terrazzo, coffee and cocktails, sculpture and wine, flair and finesse. Add great bar food and white-jacketed service and it nudges the essential.
31 Fitzroy Street, St Kilda, 03 9525 3999,
Clever, innovative cocktails assembled with charm and flair by a crack team of stylish drink geeks is one reason to have EDV on the radar. The flatteringly lit, louche, members club-like style is also pretty easy to take.
1 Malthouse Lane, Melbourne, 0412 825 441,
Table service, speakeasy vibe, meticulous attention paid to booze, glassware, recipes, service and even ice (it's bespoke): it's easy to see why many consider The Everleigh among the best on the planet.
Level 1, 150-156 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy, 03 9416 2229
Pining for Tokyo? Hihou's discreet entrance, sophisticated hush, compact timber-detailed dimensions, hot towels, menu of Japanese-style dishes and drinks list of sake, umeshu, Japanese-themed cocktails and Japanese whisky should cure what ails you.
Level 1, 1 Flinders Lane, Melbourne, 03 9654 5465,
It's all about the details at this little gem hidden behind an obscurely marked entrance near Pellegrini's. The (mostly vintage) glassware is lovely, the cocktails meticulously balanced, the oysters freshly shucked, the lighting finely tuned. A class act.
1a Crossley Street, Melbourne, 03 9639 8095,
Reached via steep stairs at the back of Saint Crispin, Thomas Olive is brilliantly conceived and delivered. Mature without being snooty, knowledgeable without being boring, this is a place to drink great cocktails and witness some of the finest bar service in town.
Level 2, 300 Smith Street, Collingwood, 03 9419 2202,
It's hard to know what we love most about this hidden Chinatown bar: the Bill Murray mascot and availability of dumplings from Kum Den next door, or the vintage hip hop and razor-sharp, fruit-driven cocktails in glittering glassware.
13 Heffernan Lane, Melbourne, 0450 186 466,
As unassuming as it is deliciously inviting, thanks to its black-on-charcoal design and Nick Hildebrandt's natural-leaning rabbit hole of a wine list. Food is smoked, charred and pickled to new levels of snackability and cocktails are consistently spot-on.
71a Macleay Street, Potts Point, 02 9360 4410,
This joint knows how to jump, particularly when the house band is shredding and daiquiris are flying across the bar. The tiki-flavoured voodoo fun shack is also brilliant in the afternoon when you can rest an elbow at the heaving wooden bar and shoot the breeze with friendly staff. Plus, there's Resch's.
407 King Street, Newtown, no listed phone, no website
If you're in Circular Quay and need a quick escape, this should be your first port of call. Actually, it will probably be your only port of call. Leaving the shoebox-sized room and its seasonal, juice-driven cocktails, curious spirits and all-star team is a difficult thing to do.
Level 1, 10–14 Bulletin Place, Sydney, , no phone
Rockpool Bar & Grill
If you ask the charming staff nicely enough, you can order from the full bells-and-whistles RB&G menu while sitting at Sydney's plushest bar. Combine the two menus for Neil Perry's famous wagyu burger with a potato gratin and drink anything from a Hanky Panky to a bottle of Henschke.
66 Hunter Street, Sydney, 02 8078 1900,
10 William St
Choose your own adventure at this low-lit Frat Paz outpost where a team of baseball-hatted chefs cook footloose Italian to match wild and uncensored vino. Keen for a pappardelle bolognese and chianti? Done. Kingfish and kombu tacos with something French and skin-macerated? They've got that too.
10 William Street, Paddington, 02 9360 3310,
When Charlie Ainsbury or Luke Ashton make a cocktail it's cause for excitement. Sitting in their white and bright new digs while one of the handsome chaps fastidiously fixes a drink – whether a low-alcohol spritz with watermelon-infused riesling or booze-heavy classic – makes for Christmas Eve levels of anticipation.
239 Oxford Street, Darlinghurst, 02 9331 8063,
The Baxter Inn
Every joint with a Macallan mirror and stained wood touts itself as the next great whisky bar these days but none holds a table candle to this basement-dwelling original. Pretzels, a blues-soaked soundtrack, more than 600 whiskies and awesome staff make The Baxter a modern classic.
Basement, 152-156 Clarence Street, Sydney,
The Ramblin' Rascal has a belting cognac selection and, boy, do they put it to good use in a Sazerac. It also has leather booths, plenty of space, $6 tinnies and stand-up bartenders. And you can get a Mary's burger delivered.
Basement, 60 Park Street, Sydney, no phone, no website
Frankie's Pizza by the Slice
Love the pinball, love the New York slice, love the bands, love the beer. Most of all, we love the semi-hidden Fun Room, which is the kind of wood-panelled joint where 1970s' Kurt Russell would hang out, nursing a tinnie before setting out for "one last job". We shouldn't love the plastic cups but we kind of do.
50 Hunter Street, Sydney,
Try to sit in this pocket-sized enoteca and have a bad time. Go on. We dare you. The thing is, you can't. You don't have to try to have a good time either, it just happens. Best go with the natural flow, order the gnocchi and let the team pour you something funky from The Boot.
4/50 Holt Street, Surry Hills, 02 9699 1582,
The dining room here is always worth considering but for barflies, the best seats in the house are always going to be in the pint-sized timber-loving wine store. It's where one of WA's best and most wide-ranging wine lists (and it is all about the wine, apart from a couple of beers) shares space with sharp Italian food that's as in love with orange stuff from Italy, obscure burgundy and local boutique heroes as the engaging staff. All this and you can take a bottle with you too.
77 St Georges Terrace, Perth, 08 9325 7077,
Clever Little Tailor
There's plenty to love about this pioneer of the increasingly impressive Adelaide bar scene, not least the fitout that, with its exposed stone and brick walls, leather upholstered horseshoe booths and lighting levels set to "gaslight", gives the impression of a place that's been shaking cans for several decades rather than a mere couple of years. The cocktails lean to the classic and are good and strong, the wine list is nimbly trend-conscious and the bar snacks sharp and suitably salty.
19 Peel Street, Adelaide 0407 111 857,
This beautiful restaurant bar in the old Mercury building in Hobart provides yet another example of that strange but increasingly common phenomenon: being jealous of Tasmanians. And while it might edge dangerously close to annoyingly cool with its concrete and cow-skin, timber and greenery, lofty ceilings and floods of natural night good looks, it's pulled back from the brink by the attitude, the spritzers and the natural leaning, heavily Italian accented wine list. Add some highly desirable ocean-loving bar snacks – oysters, salt cod, cockles – and Franklin's just too good to stay sniffy with. We love it and wish it was ours.
30 Argyle Street, Hobart, 03 6234 3375,
A prime example of the kind of hybrid bar/diner/cafe that Australia does so well, Monster is an obsessive, stylish ticker of all the boxes that make a good bar great. There's the all-day menu and the plethora of seating options in the concrete and timber space – chairs and tables, stools, lounges, window seats. There's a fireplace. There's an excellent beer list, a hefty number of gins and a clever wine list that keeps its eye on what's going on in the region around Canberra. And then there's a snack list that includes oysters, chips and a yabby jaffle. Yabby. Jaffle. Say no more.
Hotel Hotel, 25 Edinburgh Avenue, Canberra, 02 6287 6287,
Lefty's Old Time Music Hall
As if Lefty's wasn't good enough all on its own with its whisky-soaked, live-music, honkytonk-channelling promise of good times, it adds a further string to its bow with the "secret", rum-fuelled Mermaid Lounge upstairs. Sixty rums, 30 beers, house-made ginger beer (making it almost imperative to drink a Dark & Stormy) and thematically correct snacks like Fisherman's Baskets fit perfectly into the charming sailor tattoo/nautically themed decor and make the Mermaid Lounge the perfect hangout for aspiring salty old sea dogs and the people who love them.
Lefty's Old Time Music Hall, 15 Caxton Street, Petrie Terrace,
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