Being in the Marble Bar on a Thursday night makes me feel like David Attenborough in the wild. As I sip my Vesper martini, which is decent but not spectacular (more on that in a moment), I watch as a pack of older women – one of whom is even dressed in leopard print – descends upon a young, lone sailor who looks panic stricken at their approach.
They sit down around him, blocking the exit, and make small talk as he looks around, perhaps wondering where his wingman has gone.
I, in turn, make sure I don’t make eye contact with these predatory cougars as I survey the rest of my surroundings.
Located underneath the Hilton, the Marble Bar is a subterranean time capsule of what Australians thought was elegant over a hundred years ago – and it’s still possibly the grandest bar in Australia.
Inspired by the Italian Renaissance, the Marble Bar was built in 1893 with Belgian and African marble and features Corinthian columns, stained glass panels, cedar and bronze surfaces as well as 14 Edwardian paintings that feature naked nymphs frolicking by the sea and communing with nature. When the Hilton overhauled the hotel a few years back they sealed the Marble Bar off underneath concrete to protect it, essentially turning it into an empty bunker – after all (and aside from anything else) the bar is listed with the National Trust.
In other words, there are worse pubs in the CBD in which to have a beer, even if a schooner of Tooheys New costs $6 rather than the $5 or $4 you can get elsewhere.
Funk is playing on the sound system as a band sets up on stage (there’s live music here on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, as well as stand-up comedy on Tuesdays) and the place can get crowded as the night wears on. My main problem with the Marble Bar is the music: while I like funk as much as, if not more, than the next guy, and I certainly believe Sydney needs more live music venues, it just doesn’t go with the decor. It’s a bit like playing jazz or classical music in an outback beer barn.
But back to the martini.
Considering that Zeta Bar makes some of the best cocktails in Sydney and is just a few floors above, it almost doesn’t make sense to get cocktails down here – but the Vesper martini is written on the specials board and I’m curious to try it.
The Vesper made its debut in Casino Royale, the first James Bond novel by Ian Fleming. Bond, who in the novels was a far less confident and arrogant figure than in the movies, gives a bartender specific instructions on how to make a martini with three measures of Gordon’s gin, one measure of vodka and half a measure of Kina Lillet (all shaken, naturally) and then feels a little embarrassed when a colleague of his looks at him askance. Bond then names the drink after Vesper Lynd, a girl he has the hots for, and voila! A cocktail is born (how do I know all this? Let’s just say I read every Bond novel when I was in my early teens, which might explain why my adult relationships are so dysfunctional. But I digress.)
The Marble Bar version has Level vodka, Tanqueray gin and Lillet blanc, all of which is shaken – but not double strained, hence the ice shards floating in my drink. In the Marble Bar’s defence, a lot of people believe that ice shards are a good sign that a martini is truly shaken and ice cold – but I disagree (and in case you think I’m pedantic, just look at Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s blog for a detailed debate on straining methods).
Having said that, the flavour’s not bad – but it doesn’t wow me and the olive in it is a little average (I’m still on the hunt for Sydney bars that have good olives. I hate to say it, but so far Melbourne’s Gin Palace, which serves great olives in their martinis, is putting us to shame).
As I finish my martini I notice that the sailor’s wingman has finally come to the rescue. The defeated cougars give up the scent, stand up, and sniff the air as they survey the carpeted plains for new prey. My heart freezes as their attention focuses on me but then, within a moment, they decide I’m not worthy and keep looking. Part of me is relieved, another part dejected (when hungry cougars don’t think you’re worthy of a nibble you know your mojo is at an all time low), and so I do what Bond would do: I leave the Marble Bar in search of another martini and a girl to name it after.
Marble Bar, Sydney Hilton, Level B1, 488 George Street, Sydney. Phone: 9265 6026 or see the Marble Bar website
Now it’s your turn – how do you rate Marble Bar?