“Small bars have always been around,” I’m told by Marc, the bar manager at the Different Drummer, Glebe’s stalwart cocktail and tapas joint. At first I’m somewhat taken aback by this statement, it belies the common perception that small bars such as Shady Pines, Baxter’s Inn, and Grasshopper represent a new frontier for Sydney’s nightlife. But, as he goes on to explain, that perception is as much about a renewed public interest in smaller, more intimate venues as it is about their actual proliferation.
And notwithstanding the drastic increase in competition now faced by older bars like the Drummer, Marc seems incredibly enthused by the variety that the new crop of venues offer Sydney’s bar scene. “It’s the greatest thing that’s ever happened,” he says.
But the Drummer had been doing its thing long before Clover Moore unleashed the hounds. It has existed in some form or another since 1970, originally as a restaurant on Burton St in Darlinghurst at the sandstone farmhouse where The Commons now resides. It changed hands in 1986 and moved to its current location, perched atop the hill where Glebe Point Road meets St John’s. The new site also came with a wine bar license.
Dave Jeffrey purchased the restaurant in late 2003 and began a transformation toward a cocktail and tapas focus. “Ultimately [it became] a very down to earth and comfortable space with a really big focus on music selection,” he says.
What really strikes me about the place in its current incarnation is its atmosphere. The central, solid brick room is bathed in a dark red glow, one wall cushioned by plush leather fixtures, and specially-designed lamps emit only the bare necessity of light. Upstairs the aura of an old west coast speakeasy continues, but a third rooftop level overlooking the low-rise wonder of Glebe is unmistakably Sydney.
It’s with some irony that we’re lauding Sydney’s small bars amid the current furore surrounding alcohol fueled violence in Kings Cross. Lord Mayor of Sydney, Clover Moore, has come under intense scrutiny in the past few weeks, copping flak from even Paul Keating who, with characteristic panache, branded her ‘the Queen of Sydney grog’. Cr Moore championed a series of legislative changes in 2008 that made it easier to establish small licensed venues.
Unfortunately, the emergence of more specialist wine and cocktail bars, particularly in the CBD and inner-west, has been coupled with a growth in venues in already concentrated areas like Kings Cross. That led the NSW hospitality minister, George Souris, to make a rather unwelcome and much-ridiculed suggestion that such bars might be contributing to the city’s violence problem.
The Drummer typifies exactly why that argument is laughable. Friendliness and relaxation are core components of the philosophy here, which sees a regular stream of locals, young professionals, students, and even a few academics. Marc says the bar strives to facilitate an experience akin to “sitting in your own living room, but with a whole lot of decent food and booze to go with it”.
And, of course, good conversation. Many of Sydney’s younger venues would do well to remember that one of the main attractions of small bars is their congeniality to a quiet drink and pleasant conversation with a group of friends.
Knowledge is also paramount. There is hardly a whiskey or tequila Marc couldn’t detail; between the bar staff they boast an almost obsessive knowledge of most liquors. Dave has begun importing spirits direct from overseas, including the impressive skull-shaped bottle of Dan Akroyd and John Alexander’s ‘Crystal Head’ vodka, which stares knowingly at me as I sit at the bar. It accompanies a large range of local and imported craft beers, which will only grow as the bar embarks on a rebranding exercise early next year.
“It’s important to be able to change and evolve. There has been a big shift in the industry towards quality spirits, craft beers and fresh produce and it’s important to keep up,” Dave says.
Dave tells me his bar has been called “more Melbourne than Melbourne” on multiple occasions, and perhaps that’s true. But bars like the Drummer give evidence to the very plausible argument that Sydney, for the most part, bests its southern cousin. The clincher? The two-for-one cocktail “happy hour and a half” begins each evening at 6pm.