When I’m not sipping martinis and jet-setting to Monte Carlo (ok, I’ve never jetsetted to Monte Carlo but I have been to Maroubra) I like nothing better than to kick back in a casual, unpretentious pub – so it’s naturally mortifying to have people accuse me of being a snob.
“Why don’t you write about anything west of Glebe?” some say. “Why can’t you write more about pubs like my local?” others cry. And then there’s always the true-blue ocker at a party who eyes me suspiciously and says, “I just like my pubs simple, mate. None of that fancy cocktail and stylish designer wanker bullshit.”
So in ode to this feedback I have compiled the Bar Zine guide to Sydney’s best dive bars. They may not have had a designer makeover, or great cocktails, or even clean bathrooms, but they do have a certain je nai sais quoi.
For starters there’s a lovely number across the road from the Liverpool train station that I serendipitously discovered while escorting a young lady I was wooing at the time to her family abode. New to the area, she didn’t know the exact route and so we found ourselves stopping in Liverpool at 9 on a Sunday night looking for directions – and the only places open were a few pubs that may or may not have appeared on Australia’s Most Wanted and a porno shop. Since the porno clerk wasn’t able to help us (no doubt because he was so blinded by the merchandise) we crossed the road and tried the pub.
Now, I’ve been in some rough bars in my life but this took the cake. From the barren walls to the stripped-back wooden bar counter, the only sign of decoration was the pinball and cigarette machines – which might have inspired the various burly, tattooed men in the bar to be equally spartan, since half of them were bare chested. As these fellows silently scrutinised me and my female companion, who was dressed in a tight miniskirt and knee-high boots, the music from Deliverance floated through my head.
“Let’s ask somewhere else,” I whispered to her, freely abandoning any semblance of machismo in order to get out of there alive.
“Why?” the girl said obliviously before marching up to one of the half-naked bikers.
The pub became deathly quiet.
“We need to get to Prestons,” she said, shoving the map at him. “Can you give us directions?”
The man looked at her, then me, and suddenly smiled.
“Of course,” he said, before taking the map and being extremely friendly as he helped us.
Which just goes to show that you can’t judge a half-naked biker based on his bare hairy pecs alone.
Ok, so the above isn’t one of my favourite dive bars at all – I just wanted to tell that tale. Sorry. I can’t afford therapy. So without further ado, here’s my list:
The Brighton, Oxford Street
Something happened to this bar over the past year, since it went from being a refuge for bulbous-nosed old men to being filled with black-clad pierced emos. The décor, however, is still the same, from the sign behind the bar that says there’s a four-tooth minimum to the male toilets that look like they came from a third-world prison (I’m still traumatised by the sight that greeted me in there on my second-last visit). However, there’s a good selection of indie, punk and garage rock video clips and I like the retro beer advertisements on the wall showing athletic beer-drinking surfers. In fact, my gay wingman and I both thought (after one too many beers) that a smart promotional idea for Bar Zine would be to set up a competition whereby I ask loyal readers to steal an advertisement for me. Then we sobered up, realised that was a lawsuit in the making, and decided I should stick to Google ads for promotion.
77 Oxford Street, Darlinghurst. Phone: 9361 3379
Iguana Bar, Kings Cross
With photos of celebrities lining the wall, dark-lit booths, a comfortable anything-goes vibe and a clientele that stretches across Sydney’s social divide (everyone from marketing execs to working girls on their break seem to come here), the Iguana will always be one of Bar Zine’s favourite late-night haunts.
13-15 Kellett Street, Potts Point. Phone 9357 2609
For a while this was just another faux Irish pub – but then a friend told me that on Saturday nights the upstairs area sometimes turns into a ska club. Sure enough, once a month there’s the Take It or Leave It ska party but even on other nights the upper level is filled with the disenfranchised (as well as kids who want to make the most of the free wi-fi connection) even though the downstairs bar still has a daggy karaoke and faux-Irish pub vibe.
285 King St, Newtown. Phone 9565 2288
The Town Hall, Newtown
This late-night haunt may not be as full-on as it was when Newtown was less gentrified but it still has a good crowd of punks, Goths, emos, indie kids and art students. The rule of thumb is to not to arrive before 11.30pm on a weekend, when sometimes the music is barely even audible – but after midnight it slowly comes into its own. When a svelte ladyfriend of mine was in town recently I went with her and my gay wingman to the Townie where we then saw a man vomit on the carpet on his way to the bathroom only to then go back to his table afterward and continue drinking as if nothing happened.
“Ah,” the svelte ladyfriend said affectionately, “I miss the Townie!”
326 King Street, Newtown. Phone 9557 1206
The Gaslight Inn, Darlinghurst
If I have five drinks and half close my eyes, this place could almost be heaven for me. Ok, maybe if I’ve had nine tequila shots with a beer chaser. Nevertheless, it has a lot going for it: a great jukebox filled with the likes of the Rolling Stones, the Beatles and the Cure; a long middle bar with a counter (and bar stools) that runs around all four sides, allowing you to sit down and lean against the counter-top and …
Ok, maybe that’s it.
Still, Sydney is so bereft of good bars that a combination of a good jukebox and a bar counter with stools makes this stand out. It also has a good mixed crowd and it’s the place where I met the girl in boots who isn’t scared of half naked bikers. What more can you ask for?
278 Crown Street, Darlinghurst. Phone 9360 6746
Bar Broadway, Broadway
I’ve got to be honest: I’m not sure what there is to like about this place. It is, however, a favourite with my svelte lady friend, who usually insists on coming here whenever she’s in town, and it is open late. Oh, and yes, they have pool tables and a jukebox with some great indie and rock classics. And cheap beer. Ok, maybe it’s not so bad after all.
2 Broadway, Broadway. Phone 9211 2321
The Lansdowne, Broadway
A Kiwi friend of mine (the one I’ve referred to before on Bar Zine as the guy whose motto is eatin’s cheatin’) once told me he’d always thought The Lansdowne would be a big, polished venue because in New Zealand he used to see CDs from bands that said “Live from the Lansdowne!”.
Unfortunately his expectations collapsed once he saw this bar in real life, although even he can’t deny that the Lansdowne has character (I’ve never seen the décor change in 15 years), regular live music (in the form of loud thrash bands) and a young black-clad clientele. Just recently I was passing by when I saw a scuffle between two guys, one of whom then walked away.
“Piss off!” the guy who was staying yelled. “Why is someone as old as you here anyway?”
This place just reeks of je ne sais quoi.
2 City Rd, Darlington. Phone 9211 2325
The Nags Head, Glebe
If you come here on a weeknight and sit at the bar, it can almost feel like you’re in a dysfunctional version of the bar in Cheers thanks to the locals who know each other and often have lively beer-fueled debates (the last time I crawled in and had a Guinness I found myself drawn into a raucous argument over the Americanisation of T-shirt logos). There’s regular live music here and the upstairs area, which has some great chesterfield sofas and pool tables, is available for hire.
162 St Johns Road, Glebe. Phone 9660 1591
The Tea Gardens, Bondi Junction
I’ve got to be honest and say I’ve only drunk here once, after all the bars in Bondi had closed (I still can’t believe Bondi’s bars universally shut at midnight).
I was on the tail-end of a beach bar crawl with a glamorous friend of mine who, like me, was desperate for a nightcap after the arduous five-minute taxi ride up Bondi Road and since The Eastern was shut we stumbled into The Tea Gardens.
The art deco fittings, tiled walls and retro beer posters impressed me but the backpacker clientele and lived-in look of the place didn’t do much for my glamazon friend, who glanced at the beer-soaked mats on the counter in disgust before ordering two beers.
Still, any art deco bar that serves alcohol late at night in Bondi is worthy of a (shaky) thumbs up in my book.
2-4 Bronte Road, Bondi Junction. Phone 9389 3288
The Madison Hotel, Central
There are several pubs behind Central that are just a few minutes walk from each other but the one that my svelte lady friend and I feel most comfortable in is The Madison. It’s open 24 hours a day, has a good jukebox, friendly bar staff, two pool tables and if you snag a seat on the footpath you can watch everyone from derelicts to punks and emos on their way to the nearby Gaelic Club pass by. We are, however, disappointed that the upstairs Hippo Lounge, which had a bizarro jungle theme, has since been converted into a more stylish bistro.
52 Devonshire St (corner Randle St & Devonshire St), Surry Hills
Of course, I suspect I’ve only scratched the surface when it comes to dive bars, so if you have any favourite bars you’d like to add to the list, or any dive bar stories, then share them by adding a comment below.