Icon Bars on the Brink of Extinction

This article was published by Dave Spanton in the August 2010 edition of Bartender Magazine

Bourbon & Beefsteak Kings Cross

The feature in our June issue on the World’s Best Classic Bars really got me thinking about past and present classic or ‘icon’ bars. And the more I thought, the more I started to wonder what had happened to some of the great classics in Australia. As a young nation with a generally low standard of hotel/pub culture throughout our nearly two and a quarter centuries there have still been periods when the bar culture flourished. In his upcoming seminar at Sydney BarShow Week, Sebastian Reaburn will look at the cocktails from two booming bars from 1860s Australia – the Café de Paris in Melbourne’s Bourke Street and The Cafe in Sydney. But what remains of this history? How many really wonderful, old-style bars can you think of that haven’t either shut up shop or succumbed to the urge to modernise?

Before I go on, I’d like to clarify what I mean by an ‘icon’ bar. I’m simply talking about a quality drinking hole that has lasted at least a few decades. Somewhere that has stood the test of time and been resilient to changing trends and tastes. Bars with such history help define us as a culture and keep us in touch with many great bar and bartending traditions.

But above all that, there is something to be said about soaking up a little history. Visiting Cuba’s El Floridita and sitting at the same bar as Ernest Hemmingway is a thrill, even for those outside this industry. There was a time when you could visit the bar at the old Bourbon & Beefsteak in Sydney’s Kings Cross and recall that Frank Sinatra used to play impromptu gigs here, drinking Jack Daniels till dawn. The Bourbon where the doors literally never closed – because they never had any! I know this because when the new owners took it over they received a breach from police and were ordered to lock the doors for 24 hours. It was a confused new manager that reported back that they couldn’t comply as there were no doors to close!


Anyway, back to the point. When I started to think about Australia’s icon bars, I could only think of bars that had closed, been renovated beyond any recognition or a handful of bars that operate classically in design only.

Three bars come to mind and my first example is our recently closed Bayswater Brasserie. As most of our readers would know, the ‘Bayz has been a Sydney institution and was going to be celebrating its 30th year of business in 2011. The fact a place like this can so easily disappear is upsetting and frightening. If we can heritage list the old El Alamein Fountain in the ‘Cross then we sure as hell can heritage list a place like the ‘Bayz. Unfortunately, a combination of greedy landlords and recent poor management that has seen the doors of this iconic bar close. Even if the’ Bayz re-opens at a new site it just wouldn’t be the same.

Bayswater Brasserie

I briefly mentioned the Bourbon & Beefsteak before and there is no doubt in its time it was ‘The Place’.  A few years back it was sold to a big pub group who, in my opinion, did one of the worst renovation jobs ever seen in this country.  I am willing to bet big money that if they had stuck with the old school Americana look with its dark basement piano bar, they would be one of the coolest joints in town. Instead The Icon Hospitality Group and SJB Design fell into the ‘trend’ trap and turned it into a bright and shiny soulless place! They did everything to disassociate themselves from the venue’s amazing history. Even the name was shortened to the just The Bourbon. But there’s still hope. The Bourbon recently suffered major water damage and has been forced to rebuild. I just hope that they embrace their colourful history, rebuild the bar and put back all those historical photos of the stars and celebrities that once rocked the joint – if they weren’t all thrown out!

My final example is the Marble Bar on Sydney’s George Street. Built in 1893 the bar was originally named after its builder George Adam who created a bar in the tradition of the Italian Renaissance. Nothing short of breathtaking! As a city we are so lucky to have this bar but unfortunately many people just steer clear of it because it’s being run like a themed sports bar promoting regular live events like comedy and Hip Hop nights. It most likely does quiet well financially by catering to this crowd but does that make it ok? Not in my book.

Marble Bar

I could go on about the end of icon bars in Sydney. We only have to recall hard-fought battle to keep Baron’s open but ultimately the building was knocked down. And there is a bit of a push towards the character of grubby old dive bars with the re-opening of The Flinders Hotel in true gritty style. And the good news is that there are many great bars operating today that will be considered iconic bars in years to come. Two that jump to mind are Melbourne faithfuls Supper Club and the Gin Palace. I look forward to the days when my kids tell me about the great nights they had visiting the places I frequented in their early days.

Finally, I’m sure there are other great iconic bars out there and I would love to know about them so feel free to email me (david@spantonmedia.com) and I will list them on our website.

  1. The Crown & Sceptre has been around for ever and has a very colourful history being built next to the law courts. Still a great place to get a quality drink and with good tunes and always a very diverse range of people. The cocktails are awesome!

  2. What makes a good bar great isn’t the drinks, it’s the people, the staff, the customers, the stories, the history, the tradition. The boutique hotel bars listed above, while not providing the greatest drinks going around, had atmosphere and ambience in bucket loads. I could write a book on my experiences at the Ritz-Carlton, serving everyone who was anyone; from rockers to royalty, actors to models, Prime Ministers to Presidents, and Forbes billionaires to your average Joe Blow.

    One night at the Ritz-Carlton Tom Jones was in town, after coming back from his show he was walking up to his room when he heard the singer playing piano in the bar, he walks into the bar, asks the painoman if it was Ok for him to play a few songs, the pianoman willingly obliged, and there was Tom Jones, live and uncut. Hotel bars have star pulling power, celebrities need accommodation just like anyone else, and stories like this there are by the hundreds. The reason people took to these places was they felt like home, bartenders would work there for 10, 15, 20 years, customers could come back every year and expect the same drink waiting for them at the bar, the same doorman to greet them by their name as they arrive. Hotels are in a very unique position, they are able to offer an experience unparalleled by any bar anywhere.

    What’s missing from bars today is ambience and atmosphere, bars have become too sterile, too modern. The Sebel Townhouse and the Ritz were smallish bars – 100 capacity – their bars ran parallel to the foyer/lobby of the hotel and when the bars became busy the crowds would spill out into the foyer and all over the lobby. These days there are too many rules and regulations along with steroid infused monkeys at the door looking intimidating with door girls, drunk with a sense of their own importance. The reason these boutique hotel bars did so well was because they were warm and friendly. A guest walking into the bar felt like they were at home, even though there were expensive paintings and chandeliers, signed autographs and pictures of celebrities who’d visited the hotel (some of which can now be seen at Iguana bar and Dee Bee’s in Double Bay). We even had a $250,000 painting on the back bar, which funnily enough had little spatters of liquor all over it. OUCH!

    Nowadays clubs/bars have VIP rooms, celebrities are pushed into private booths and swept away from the crowds, and it’s all too pretentious. I remember working at the Ritz on a busy afternoon, to other bar guest’s amazement John Travolta walks in, sits down and orders some food and iced tea, another evening Andrea Bucheli walks in with his brother, asks me to make him a ristretto. Since Andre couldn’t see I had to talk him through where the coffee was placed, guide his hand to it etc, an experience I’ll never forget. During Big Day Out all the bands staying in house were back at the bar after their concert, ransacking the place, Prodigy filling the lifts with furniture one night, then passing out in the lift, to a hotel guests horror when they pressed the lift button and the door opened, only to reveal a lift full of antique furniture with one of the prodigy guys lying there paralytic.

    Dave Grohl, sitting at the end of the bar kicking back with a beer, Michael Hutchence the night before he passed was sitting at the bar drinking Jack, a local diamond dealer, who’s daily ritual consisted of espressos with a shot of Louis XIII mid afternoon, then there was Bob the chauffeur from Bankstown, who could only afford to come in once a week with $20 in his wallet, he’d sit down and drink 2 x $7 coffees and Wolfgang, the pensioner who would drop by every week for his shot of Aquavit, they were the kind of bars where it didn’t matter who you were, how much money you had, where you were from, what you did, everyone was welcome and everyone was treated the same.

    We have this arrogant air of superiority in and around clubs/bars these days, there are huge cover charges, guest only lists, members only areas. ‘A’ listers drop by and are whisked away for a boring night in a booth, bars/clubs have become too exclusive. Ok fair call in the case of some nightclubs you do need to keep out the riff raff and have those huge mountain men on the doors. However, in terms of bars, I’ve travelled the world, had a drink at many a bar and have never come across any bar quite like what the Sebel Townhouse once was, or the Ritz-Carlton. Sure they were in a privileged/unique position in that they had their 150 rooms so were always busy, had the mystique, international recognition, contracts with record labels, agents and managers, securing accommodation for all the stars who needed a place to stay in Sydney, but in saying that they were never exclusive, it was never you’re not allowed in here because you’re not famous, you don’t have enough cash, you’re not on the list, for what it was, the location, the amazing artwork and antiques, the formal language staff had to use, the old-school formal dress of the staff e.g. wing color shirt, with bow tie, vest etc, for all of that these places were surprisingly unpretentious.

    I noticed big changes in the bar scene back around the Olympics and 2001/2002, it pretty much started with a guy known to frequent the Ritz, Justin Hemmes, along with another guy who has transformed the Sydney landscape, John Ibrihim, who was also a Ritz regular, those 2 have changed the whole Sydney bar/nightclub scene, especially Justin with Hemmesphere, where he introduced exclusivity to the bar scene with memberships etc.

    On a trip around several states of the USA last year I experienced some fantastic service in the most unlikely of places, the food was far from Michelin star, however I was absolutely blown away by the warmth and sincerity of the southern hospitality in particular, which got me thinking, we need to get back to basics, we need to focus more on customer service and worry less about image, aesthetics etc, we need to build stronger relationships with our customers, customers will come back to a bar time and time again for the people who work there, music can be changed, layouts can be altered, drink menus improved, but getting the right kind/mix of people operating the venue is far from easy, I’ve been privileged to work alongside some fantastic bartenders in my time, many underground who were here on holidays and just needed quick cash before they were off again; to the consummate professionals at Zeta, you guys know who you are.

    Like your article said about the Bourbon – it’s sorely missed. Nothing use to beat hitting the bourbon at 3am on a Sunday, the bohemian layout, relaxed vibe, there’d be a group of teens having a good laugh in one corner, a 60yr old man sitting by himself at the bar talking to the bartender, a group of suits in the other corner, then there were some of the bartenders from the cross chilling out with a cold beer after a long night behind the stick. It was a real mixed bag and it worked. Nowadays everything has become more about fancy websites, promoters, trendy modern refurbishments, in with the new, out with the old.

    I went to Tattler a few months ago, one of the very few places which hasn’t changed, and let’s hope it never does.

  3. After working in the industry for some time, I couldn’t agree more with Mike from Zeta! Its so important that each and every customer feels warmth from an establishment, especially if they’re willing to fork $200 on usually their only night out. I’ve seen people wait an hour to get into a bar, only to be whacked with a cover charge by a rude door girl, under trainer security guards, then wait in a further line for a drink from a bartenders who couldn’t pour a beer even if their life dependent on it. The industry really needs a wake up call and get back to the basics. I know it can be hectic for management to get it wrong every now and then due to strict laws but how hard is it for a host to smile, say hello and welcome, for a bar to be fully stocked and have trained bar staff?

  4. Couldn’t agree more with the main story and with Mike and Michael’s comments. What has been done to The B&B and the Bayz is nothing short of a crime. There really should be some sort of protection for bars that are national treasures. Heritage isn’t just the bricks and mortar – it is about the soul of the place, too.
    Sadly, we’re looking at a bygone bar golden age that may never come again…

  5. I have been visiting Australia since 1981 and I am quite familiar with the Bourbon and Beefsteak. I, too, couldn’t agree more with the author of the original article. “Bring back the original Bourbon like it used to be……” I had thought about this many times.

    Yes, I remember Barrons and the Bays, and I even thought of a couple more —- The All Nations Club and the The Aquatic Club on Grenknowe Street —— and the Old Aussie Rules Club —– and the Graphics Arts Club……..all of these great places hold great times and memories for me —– but no doubt, the old Bourbon stands out at the leader of the pack………. thanks for sharing…… i’m a little late with my comment, but I just saw this on the internet….. Linda from California

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