The influential bars that shaped Australia

Whether they’re changing social values or pre-empting drink trends, the bars and pubs of Australia have long reflected Australian society. MAX VEENHUYZEN celebrates seven of the nation’s most influential watering holes.
Photo of two men sitting at the bar and bartender blurred in motion in front of large whisky collection in back bar at Baxter Inn in Sydney, which is one of the best bars Australia that have had a lasting impact
The Baxter Inn, Sydney
Vanessa Levis

The bars, pubs and clubs of Australia are this nation’s great meeting places. We catch up in them. We play out nervous first dates in them. We deliriously celebrate penalty shoot-out wins in them. We kill time in them. And sometimes we even drink in them.

Although colonisers brought British drinking culture with them, Australia’s drinks culture – like most aspects of life here – has become increasingly globalised over the past two centuries. Considering the role drinking plays in our day-to-day (for better or worse), it’s no surprise that these paradigm shifts often unfold at bars, pubs and anywhere people congregate to drink and chat. Sometimes these changes are the work of canny operators looking for a point of difference in evermore competitive markets. Other times they’re simply a product of zealous bartenders, sommeliers and beer geeks given an opportunity to flex. Almost always these changes are fun to track.

Today we understand that pokies and sports betting are optional (and undesirable) extras on a night out; that food options can and should go beyond wedges and parmies; and that “hotels” don’t necessarily have rooms one can stay at, although we’re usually delighted when they do. Here, we detail seven Australian bars – all listed in chronological order of opening – whose influence can still be seen and tasted to this day.

Regatta Hotel | Brisbane, Qld

Opened: 1886

Remember the ladies’ lounge? No? Good. It’s unthinkable that, until the 1970s, female pub-goers were barred from drinking in the male-dominated “public bar” and were confined to the ladies-only areas. Starting in the ’60s, women’s rights activists began protesting this segregation. The best known of these protests occurred in 1965 when Merle Thornton (mother to actress Sigrid Thornton) and Rosalie Bognor chained themselves to the foot rail of the public bar inside Brisbane’s Regatta Hotel after being refused service. The protest is considered a watershed moment in Australian women’s rights and helped affect change in Queensland. And while the Regatta was originally the problem not the solution, the hotel named a bar after Thornton for her troubles.

Chevron Hotel | Sydney, NSW

Opened: 1960

Melbourne might be Australia’s ground zero for contemporary cocktail culture (more on that later) but Sydney was the landing spot for Australian bartending pioneer, Eddie Tirado. In addition to mixing drinks for celebrities and jetsetters at one of Sydney’s hotels du jour, Tirado also shaped drinks culture by writing cocktail recipe books as well as introducing Australians to Bourbon, Galliano and Suntory liqueurs. Fun fact: Tirado also invented Australian cocktails, Black Opal and Hawaiian Honeymoon.

Little Creatures brewery with people sitting in large warehouse space with large beer brewing stainless steel fermenting barrels
Little Creatures, Fremantle

Little Creatures | Fremantle, WA

Opened: 2000

The argument: the West Australian port city of Fremantle is the birthplace of Australian craft beer. The proof: in addition to being home to the country’s first brewery to open post-WWII (Matilda Bay Brewing Company, 1984), Freo gave Australia Little Creatures, a radical microbrewery and then 600-person beer hall that threw hoppy, floral pale ale in the face of beer’s macho image. Overlooking Fremantle Fishing Boat Harbour, Creatures found inspiration in the burgeoning craft beer movement that was brewing in the US. Together with forward-thinking brewers such as Mountain Goat and James Squire, it encouraged beer drinkers to look beyond ABV. “At the time, people would order jugs of either ‘super’ [full-strength beer] or ‘unleaded’ [light beer],” recalls Miles Hull, Little Creatures’ opening hospitality manager. “There was no talk about styles.” Although Creatures was part of craft beer’s vanguard, Hull believes the c-word no longer carries the same weight as before. “I think craft beer has evolved to become just the beer market,” he says. “People understand and appreciate beer so much more these days.”

Der Raum | Melbourne, Vic

Opened: 2001

“I’m proud that our 15 minutes [of fame] brought some attention to Melbourne as a cocktail city,” says Matthew Bax, the accountant-slash-artist-slash-bartender behind the groundbreaking Der Raum. (Similarly influential were Melbourne institutions Ginger and Gin Palace, one of the city’s first laneway bars.) After initially zooming in on the classic cocktails that were trending in Europe, Bax’s focus began to shift towards the experimental and decidedly non-classic. By the time Der Raum closed in 2013 (to be reborn in Munich as Gamsei), the bar employed full-time research staff, bartenders were serving drinks on signature coasters, and the whole operation crackled with a level of creativity rarely seen in drink circles. “As we matured, we walked our own path, which had us running more like an ambitious kitchen than a bar, so gadgets, technology and art played a bigger role in defining our DNA,” says Bax. While Bax was the bar’s driving force, respected Australian bartenders Paul Aron and Jason Chan were hugely influential in Der Raum’s early days. Also notable was the influence of a nascent Joost Bakker, including inspiring Bax to serve drinks in old jam jars: a cocktailian flourish that many others would emulate.

The bar at 10 William Street in Paddington, Sydney
The stocked bar at 10 William Street in Paddington, Sydney

10 William Street | Sydney, NSW

Opened: 2010

When 10 William Street opened on a back-street of Paddington, founders Marco Ambrosino and brothers Gio and Enrico Paradiso were simply tapping into the new-wave wine bar movement that was shaking up Paris and Italy at the time. Instead, the trio became harbingers for the “natural wine” movement that’s taken a firm hold around Australia (and, indeed, the planet). In addition to celebrating the pleasures of organic and biodynamic grapes, 10 William Street – care of an emerging Daniel Pepperell – helped position wine bars as places for dining as well as wining. Here’s looking at you, bottarga pretzel. Equally pivotal to popularising organic winemaking in Australia was Garagistes – the Hobart wine bar and dining room opened by Kirk Richardson, Katrina Birchmeier and Luke Burgess – also in 2010. Today, dedicated natural wine strongholds such as Perth’s Wines of While (2018) and Adelaide’s charming LOC (2020) continue to fly the flag for the cloudy, the orange and the low-sulphur. In Melbourne, Christian McCabe and Dave Verheul’s interpretation of the casual wining and dining brief led to the opening of Embla (2015), a blueprint for the wine bars that continue to populate the Victorian capital.

The Baxter Inn | Sydney, NSW

Opened: 2011

Shady Pines Saloon (2010) might have been the Swillhouse Group’s first child, but it was the opening of Baxter in Sydney’s CBD that really announced their arrival and fanned Australia’s appreciation for the world of whisky. After all, what’s not to love about a basement boozer teeming with whisky, gun bartenders and the potential to get up to late-night hijinks every night of the week? Even more impressively, Swillhouse followed this notable one-two with even more lovable, singular venues including Frankie’s Pizza (2012); Franco fantasy Restaurant Hubert (2016); Italo wonderland Alberto’s Lounge (2018); plus the recently opened Le Foote. A bold new Australian drink and food dynasty – with a real sense of fun – arises.

Zero-proof spirits at Aces Brunswick have inspired more non-alcoholic bars in Australia. Photo of bartender mixing cocktails at bar
Brunswick Aces, Melbourne

Brunswick Aces | Melbourne, Vic

Opened: 2021

It might seem incongruous to finish our reflection with an establishment committed to helping guests not drink, but the meteoric rise of the non-alcoholic sector can’t be ignored. One of the movement’s ringleaders is Brunswick Aces, a zero-proof spirit brand started in 2017 by a group of booze-loving mates hoping to cut back. Four years later, said mates doubled down on their commitment to sobriety by opening Australia’s first non-alcoholic watering hole. “We figured that people who were abstaining wanted somewhere to socialise that wasn’t a pub, as did people who were rebalancing their alcohol intake,” says co-founder Stuart Henshall. “We were correct.” Best of all, the (Australian) non-alcoholic industry is just getting started. “We’ve come so far in the past five years,” adds Henshall. “What’s going to be available in five years’ time is going to be incredible. It’s going to be a completely different world again.”

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