Hidden in a tiny East Sydney laneway (a short walk away from Café Pacifico), Love Tilly Devine is a small bar that you would probably never walk past if you didn’t know where it was. And yet, when I go there with the Amazonian Croatian on a Wednesday night, the bar is already almost full – which is a great sign for the health of Sydney’s small bars.
Despite being named after a razor-wielding female gangleader who ruled the area’s bordellos in the 20s and 30s (a good book to read on this is Razor by Larry Writer), Love Tilly Devine’s name is more a sign of respect toward the area’s history than to crime.
I’m not sure how friendly Tilly’s bordellos were to visit but the bar staff here are certainly welcoming: we’re greeted at the door by a bubbly waitress who leads us to a small table and gives us a menu that has just under 300 wines listed on it. That isn’t a typo, btw: 300 vinos, one of which is in a large glass tank on the bar with a tap attached to it.
To some degree this place feels – at least to me – a bit like a cross between someone’s garden shed and a basement in that there’s a jumbled, ramshackle vibe. There are rusty spherical light fixtures on the exposed brick wall that look like they came off a submarine, a vase filled with artichokes on the bar, metal chairs that could have come from the 50s, and racks of wine. Lots of wine.
I opt for a glass of the Foster e Rocco “Nuovo” Sangiovese while the Croatian gets The First Drop “The Big Blind” Nebbiolo, and we also grab a plate of salami made by the same winemakers behind my sangiovese as well as some bruschetta with crushed broadbeans, fetta cheese and mint.
I’m not a huge fan of my Foster e Rocco Sangiovese (although most people rate it highly, so perhaps I got unlucky with my glass), but I do love their salami – and I’m also impressed with the Nebbiolo, which is rich and flavoursome.
The standout is the bruschetta though – I could easily scoff several of these.
Intrigued by the menu entry that says one of its wines is served by the pint, we order it and find it’s the wine that’s in the watercooler/tank on the bar.
It turns out this wine is made by Natural Selection Theory in SA who sells the wine (called Voice of the People) in these 23-litre glass bottles (technically they’re called demijohns). The wine is sulfur free and both the Croatian and I love it – the wine alone is enough to make me want to go back to Tilly Devine. We also like how the bar serves it in glass pint bottles that look like they should hold milk.
The menu is also an entertaining read, with each wine section having its own introduction (the standout for me being the page that compares trebbiolo wines to David Byrne from Talking Heads because they’re both moody but eventually mature – or something to that effect). Talking of music, the bar’s playing an interesting mix that swerves from 60s pop to what sounds like African tribal soul.
I like to balance my reviews by mentioning negatives as well as positives but the only negative I can see with Love Tilly Devine is that I can imagine it getting hot in here as summer heats up (the temp’s in its 20s while the Croatian and I are here and we’re still finding it pretty warm inside). But if that’s the worst accusation I can throw at this small bar then that’s pretty high praise indeed.
And on that note the Croatian and I finish our pint of wine, stop reading the menu and head to Café Pacifico nearby for some tequila and mezcal – but that’s another story.
Love Tilly Devine, 91 Crown Lane, Darlinghurst/ East Sydney. See the Love Tilly Devine website. Open Tuesday to Saturday, 4pm-midnight.
Now it’s your turn – how do you rate Love Tilly Devine?