In the past, if I wanted a weekend of good food and cool bars I would always choose to travel to Melbourne.
Fast-forward four-years since the liquor licensing laws changed in Sydney, the cities nightlife finally offers visitors something else, something cooler than the local pub or big night club – and it might be even cooler than what Melbourne has to offer.
Staying at Pyrmont’s very chic boutique 1888 Hotel, dubbed the Instagram Hotel for creative use of the social media platform throughout the hotel, it’s an easy walk to anywhere I want to go in the city.
Of course, for a special night out, or for those who are a fan of high heels, sometimes you just need to treat yourself to a night of limousine travel in Sydney.
My partners in crime on my trip to Sydney, Jasmine and Sara, had teamed up to create two nights in the city that would let us sample just a few of these cool restaurants and small bars around the city centre.
It’s a Sydney institution and so our night began at The Argyle, an ultra cool warehouse-style building in The Rocks. Comprised of five bars, it was their new hawker style dumpling kitchen that was what we were interested in.
Knowing we’d have a heavier dinner later, as well as our Ketel One Bar tour, we decided to go for light options as steamer baskets quickly filled our tables as well as sweet fruity cocktails.
Overall, the dishes were tasty but I felt that they could have done more with them. Many of the dumplings were poorly constructed and had opened during steaming or frying letting out the delicious flavour that is usually stored within the inners of the pastry. The saving grace is that the food is all under $15, making it something of a bargain by Sydney standards, and that they had a lot of flavour!
The standout dish for me was, by far, the pork belly pancakes. Verdict? Come for the dumplings, stay for the drinks and vibrant atmosphere come weekends.
Just as we were finishing out meal at The Argyle, Alex (aka: Ms Darlinghurst) walked in, one half of the brains behind Ketel One Bar Tours.
While waiting for the bill Alex talked to us about her new venture and the growing small bar scene in Sydney. As a Adelaidian-cum-Melburnian a little bit of the cities cockiness has evidently rubbed off onto me and in my mind I was doubtful that Sydney could take Melbourne’s small bar title away, but Alex assured me that I was in for a surprise as we set off on a personalised CBD Hidden Bars Tour.
For the evenings tour, we were off to Rook for the launch of a new Australian made gin, the deceptive looking bar known as The Barber Shop, and local favourite Stitch.
Look for the little backwards R on a glowing overhanging light and enter the lift to level ‘R’ to get to the cool rooftop bar known as The Rook.
A short drink menu that changes frequently, if they have any available try the Four Pillars Gin – the Victorian made dry gin with hints of citrus, cinnamon and star of anise give it a fruity note.
Guys, you’re in luck. If you need a hair cut but also want a drink make a stop at The Barber Shop, deceptively hidden by a small but functioning salon.
Their cocktail menu is short, though the wine and spirit list is more extensive, but top marks go to the Cut Throat Martini (Bols Genever, Americano Rosso, orange blossom, Dom Benedictine) and The Barbershop Summer Cup (berried Gin, Pimms, Lemon & Soda).
Combining Americana style throughout the ages with a hipster bar, Stitch is underground saloon with a long drink menu topped off with a menu of hot dogs and curly fries.
Sit in the plump leather covered saloon booths and wait for the speedy service to take your Stitch Dog and drinks orders.
Alex swears by the Beetlejuice (fresh beetroot & ginger juice shaken with Bombay sapphire gin, punt e mes, sweet vermouth and ginger beer) while I went with the Air Mail (Angostura 1919 rhum, fresh lime juice, orange infused Manuka honey, topped with Moet & Chandon champagne).
For $75 for a guide, three drinks at three small bars and some snacks along the way, the Ketel One Bar Tour is definitely value for money, especially when Sydney’s cocktails usually begin at $15.
If you want to continue drinking, your guide will be able to help with suggestions for the next best places to go or help you get a car back to your hotel for the night.
On recommendation by Sara, somehow the only non-seafood eating Australian (or so it seems) ended up in one of Australia’s best seafood restaurants.
Sepia is Australian fine dining at it’s best. Graceful plates of food will pass you bursting with flavour and with a distinct Japanese style. The standout dish was the small succulent piece of Kobe, of which I could have happily eaten three of them though my first foray into eating scampi was a notable second.
One thing I will point out, the waiter did not seem happy to palette even when explaining that I didn’t eat seafood. “You’re in a seafood restaurant,” he pointed out. “I didn’t make the booking,” was my only reply.
Despite asking for the vegetarian menu (with the Kobe beef course because I was not going to miss that!) the waiter was adamant on me eating at least four-course of seafood. When we settled on 2 seafood courses, no fish just crustacean the message must have been mixed up because the chef ended up sending out one fish course, two crustacean, one vegetarian and two meat.
To be honest, it was because of the mix up my opinion has been sullied. I probably would have been happier in my favourite Korean restaurant that was only two blocks away but thankfully the expert 8-course wine pairing kept me occupied for the night as did the wait for the dessert of the year – the Pearl, an opalescent ball filled with frozen raspberry sorbet pellets.
For a seafood eater and food aficionado, like Sara, it was seventh heaven, and really even the seafood dishes did taste good, it’s just flavours I’d not been exposed to before.
While classic restaurants like Sepia and even North Sydney’s Aqua Dining will never go out of style, it’s Sydney’s impressive list of small bars that keep growing that was the stand out of the trip. Watch out Melbourne, Sydney is out to steal the title of cool restaurant and small bar capital!
Other Cool Bar and Restaurant Recommendations:
Now it’s over to you:
Which city has the world’s coolest bars?
Any recommendations for great Sydney eats and drinks?
Ketel One Bar Tours
Prices: AU$75 (£41/€49)
Tours run for 2.5-3hrs in which you’ll visit 3 bars with a personal guide.
The price includes a cocktail at each bar and light snacks.
Different prices do apply if in groups of 6 or less or 15 or more.
Private tours may be available on request.
Ketel One Bar Tours are now available in Melbourne as well!