Sydney looks to Melbourne as it eyes a more relaxed grog culture

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 August, 2007, 12:00am


Nowhere is the difference between Sydney and arch-rival Melbourne more acute than in the cities' drinking cultures.

In Sydney the average pub is big, brash and brassy, a cacophony of plasma television screens blaring non-stop sports, jangling one-armed bandits and loud muzak.

Down south in Melbourne, by contrast, there is a plethora of softly lit, eclectically designed little bars tucked into its famously labyrinthine lanes. There's a distinctly European feel to snug lounge bars such as St Jerome's, the Cherry Bar and the Golden Monkey - meant to evoke the ideo of a Chinese opium den.

And Double Happiness is so cool that it has no sign outside - the implication being that if you have to ask where it is, you shouldn't be heading there in the first place.

Also in vogue, at the end of a graffiti-strewn lane, is The Croft Institute, a bar which resembles a 1920s pharmacy, complete with old bottles, beakers and test tubes.

The reason for the gulf in drinking ambience? Melbourne's licensing laws are infinitely more relaxed than Sydney's, and have been since a far-sighted Victorian state government shook them up in the 1980s.

If you want to set up a hole-in-the wall boutique bar in Melbourne, you'll need to stump up around A$550 (HK$3,450) for a licence. In Sydney that same piece of paper will set you back about A$10,000.

It is a system skewed massively towards the big brewers, booze barns and identikit social clubs which dominate the Sydney scene.

Now, though, there is a push to overhaul the licensing laws in order to encourage Melbourne-style bars.

The City of Sydney Council plans to cut the cost of a liquor licence, reduce the time it takes to apply for one and allow late opening hours for small, boutique lounge bars.

It is a move most people believe is long overdue.'It's the opinion of almost everyone who knows the two cities that we lack the sort of bars that one would expect in a place which has pretensions to being a global city,' Sydney councillor John McInerney said. But he and his fellow councillors are up against the powerful big pub lobby, represented by the Australian Hotels Association.

In New South Wales it has close links with the state's ruling Labor Party, which has control over pub licensing laws.

The association will fiercely resist any moves to dilute its market share of drinking revenue.

Last week its president, John Thorpe, poured scorn on the idea of Melbourne-style bars, insisting that Sydney's beaches, harbour and better climate gave it a very different drinking culture.

'We aren't barbarians, but we don't want to sit in a hole and drink chardonnay and read a book,' Mr Thorpe said. '[Melbourne people] haven't got this magnificent harbour and the opera house. No wonder they want to sit in a hole in the wall.'

A publican of the old school, he said Sydney was a more outdoorsy, macho kind of a place.

'People can sit down, talk about history, chew the fat and gaze into each others' eyes and all this sort of baloney but it's pie in the sky stuff. That's not what Sydney wants.'

Mr Thorpe's portrayal of Melbournians as a bunch of effete, chardonnay-sipping intellectuals only increases Sydney city council's resolve to take on his association and push for a change in the law.

'We have a fight on our hands,' concedes Mr McInerney. 'The question is, will the state government take notice of the views of the vast bulk of Sydneysiders?'