The Rise Of Small Bars In The Inner City And Inner West

March 10th, 2023 - by Brad Gillespie

Often quirky and always cool – having a drink in a small bar is a delightfully unique and intimate experience.

These days, there are plenty of local small bars to choose from in Sydney’s inner city and inner west, but it wasn’t always so. We track the rise of the small bar in Sydney and uncover some of the best our local area has to offer.

A short history of Sydney’s small bar scene

Sydney’s first-ever small bar, imaginatively titled Small Bar, opened in the CBD in December 2008. In a move to diversify the city’s nightlife, liquor licensing restrictions had been relaxed that year, and a new small bar licence was introduced. For the first time, it allowed the operation of small venues that primarily served alcohol (not food) to a maximum of 120 patrons, so long as they didn’t sell takeaway liquor or install pokies or other forms of betting. Aspiring bar operators jumped on the chance to open their own original, cosy venue, and 70 new small bar licences were issued in Sydney in 2011 alone. Some of the early players – like Shady Pines Saloon and Love, Tilly Devine – are still going strong today. In 2013, however, the small bars liquor legislation was introduced, cutting capacity to 60 people. This, combined with the effect of Sydney’s lockout laws, which came into effect in 2014, heralded a period of tougher times for small bars.

Patron limits were raised to 100 in 2016, which saw the number of small bars almost double in the 18 months that followed. But just as the small bar scene was thriving, COVID hit. Pandemic lockdowns and social distancing restrictions impacted hospitality businesses across the world. The struggles faced by Sydney small bars prompted another revision of the law, with the changes coming into effect in late 2020. Now, small bars are once again allowed to hold up to 120 revellers. They’re also able to sell takeaway cocktails, apply for extended trading hours, allow minors on the premises at certain times and provide entertainment such as live music.

Small bars in 2023

While the 2020 liquor license changes improved conditions for small bars, running a small bar in 2023 isn’t without its challenges. Today, small bars must navigate workforce shortages, rising rents, and inflation. And in August last year, the alcohol excise tax saw its largest increase in 20 years, rising by 3.84% for full-strength beer. Nevertheless, the buzz of discovering a character-filled small bar, many of which are hidden or disguised, and savouring a delicious drink within will never grow old. We’re lucky enough to have some of Sydney’s best small bars nestled right here in the inner city and inner west.

The inner city and inner west’s best small bars

Saga Bar
49 Goold Street, Chippendale

Saga Bar's ornately carved wooden doors lead to a hidden world decorated with vines, a water feature, stacked stone walls, and a giant Buddha head. The menu promises delicious Asian-inspired fare, and the cocktail list changes weekly.

Earl’s Juke Joint
407 King Street, Newtown

Behind the old Betta Meats butcher’s shop façade, Earl’s Juke Joint is a slice of America’s Deep South in the heart of Newtown. Cocktails are what they do best here, with bourbon and rum featuring heavily.

Bar Planet
16 Enmore Road, Newtown

Broadsheet described Bar Planet as ‘an art nouveau-era bistro that’s been installed on the moon.’ Suffice it to say that Bar Planet nails the ‘unique’ element of the small bar experience. Their speciality is martinis.

Bar Louise
135 Enmore Road, Enmore

The kitsch (but iconic) old Marie-Louise Salon is home to this stylish tapas and wine bar run by the team behind Porteno. The drinks menu homes in on Spanish, Italian and French tipples, while the Spanish-inspired snacks menu changes often.

Fortunate Son
105 Enmore Road, Newtown

Given that this small bar is co-owned by two of Sydney’s top bartenders, it’s no surprise to find a very comprehensive drinks list and top-notch cocktails here. Lean into the bar’s Americana vibe and complement your drink with a hotdog with pickles, peppers and chips.

The Bearded Tit
183 Regent Street, Redfern

With its motto of ‘free love not free beer’, the Bearded Tit aims to create openness and connection for the whole community. There’s local art on display, a range of tap beers, cocktails and wines, and plenty of friendly neighbourhood vibes.

Want more?

Looking for somewhere more spacious to have a drink or a watering hole that will welcome your four-legged friends? Check out our lists of the best bars and the best dog-friendly pubs and cafes in Sydney’s inner city and inner west.

If you’re thinking about making Sydney’s inner city or inner west your new home, get in touch today.