From The Saloon To The City

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The Americanised bar scene in Sydney

Words || Nicholas Wasiliev


In recent years, there has been an insurgence of Americanised bars across Australia, offering more boutique beers and, of course, creative spaces to enjoy some ice-cold beverages. From rock-n-roll dive bar Frankie’s, the taxidermy of Shady Pines, the candle-lit intimacy of Baxter’s Inn, or the greasy burgers and ribs at Mary’s in Newtown, something has interrupted our usual interface of pokies machines and Tooheys on tap.

Americanisation has become a hot topic, and it’s easy to assume the bar scene movement is consistent with a general sense of acculturation. But are we really jeopardising our sense of integrity? With the increase of these American-themed small bars, it’s worth asking whether this is a new expressive way to enjoy Sydney’s bar scene, or a sign of the increasing Americanisation in Australia.

And I suppose the answer is: well, a bit of both.

I went to Shady Pines Saloon in Darlinghurst and interviewed Jimmy Sauvé, who has been working there for six months as a bartender. To him, the theme of American bars in Sydney is a great addition to the flourishing bar scene. ‘Sure, this place is American; but it’s relatable, he said. ‘We could be dressed up as cowboys, but we don’t. It’s not about shoving Americana down your throat, it’s about expression and creating something new’.

So many things that exist in Australia can trace their origins back to the US. Examples include cuisine (fast-food like McDonalds, Subway and KFC), shopping (like Supermarkets/megastores like the Macquarie Centre; which were first pioneered in North America in the 1930s), the film and music industry, and even cultural idioms. Sauvé even highlighted the fact that the US also pioneered the creation of bars and the cocktail culture. ‘When liquor laws were changed in America in the 1920s, many pioneers moved to Cuba and the UK, expanding its influence enormously into what the bar and club scene has become today’.

Yet, despite these clear American influences, why are these bars so popular and relatable to Australians? Is it because we like the idea of American culture? Or is it something more? According to Sauvé, the whole reason in his eyes is around the notion of expression; borrowing ideas from Americana-themed bars, and putting an Aussie spin on it. This creates something that makes the drinking experience a lot more exciting and refreshing. ‘It’s very laid back, very fun. There’s no dress codes, you come as you are’.

Shady Pines Saloon was one of the first small licence bars to open in Sydney. These new bars began to prop up all over Sydney following the NSW government introducing legislation in 2000 that allowed venues that are restricted to 60 patrons to serve alcohol. Since then, underground bars are hovelled across the CBD. It creates something exciting, hard-boiled detective like, to find the best places to drink.

And here we invent our own twists to the American experience. A record shop that serves drinks down the hallway, rooftops swarmed with illuminate people, and other spots that decide to not advertise themselves altogether. There is as much culture in the discovery of a venue as the atmosphere.

This small bar licence scheme is backed by the City of Sydney, which even provides videos on its website about how to open up a small bar. And the scheme has clearly been very successful; in the last year, six official small themed bars have opened their doors in the city alone. This licencing scheme, according to Sauvé, has provided an explosion in the bar culture in Sydney, especially with themed bars. ‘I think the increase of American-themed bars is great. This licencing scheme allowed many new bars to be created’.

Many of these new small bars aren’t isolated to the Americana theme. From European-style themed bars like The Bear in Chinatown, to Art Deco bars like Fifty-Fifty’ in Darlinghurst, many small bars with multiple themes have experienced rapid success in recent years. Americana themed bars have been some of the most successful, which is the reason for so many opening all over the city.

Sauvé attributes the success of these American bars to the fact that thirsty Sydneysiders are always looking for something new and exciting. Maybe these multicultural elements are a testament to our cultural diversity and willingness to embrace new environments. ‘No one would open a business unless patrons wanted it. If you’ve got an idea, just have fun and run with it. It’s about the product you produce’. Overall, this has been the secret to the ‘Americanised’ bar scene’s success, and also one of the reasons why it is so relatable.

Even our palettes have shifted. In particular, craft brewers have re-energised the West Coast style appreciation for bitter hopsy beers, like Indian Pale Ales and Porters. And so drinking has evolved to encompass something far more holistic. We are offered variety as the norm. Don’t fear the Americanisation of Aussie culture. It’s more a peaceful co-existence, similar to the decision to eat Chinese take-away instead of Italian down the road. We are converging and stretching, rather than defining our culture by the things we appreciate.