What makes a great bar? Part 1

We gathered some of the best in the industry – from bar group operators to managers to brand ambassadors to a bar journo and a PR expert – to find out what exactly goes into pulling all the threads together into a cohesive and great bar operation.

• Emily Lloyd-Tait, Time Out Bars Editor for Sydney
• Meg Smith, SideCar
• Toby Hilton, Swillhouse
• Michael Nouri, The Exchange
• Jeremy Shipley, Solotel
• Russ McFadden, Bar Manager of EDV Sydney


MN: The thing for me that sets it off is the initial impact – there’s times when I’ve travelled back home to Lebanon and walked into a place that is literally at the bottom of a cliff, with some rickety tables that are barely standing and they’re serving stuff out of watermelons. Not anything of any major quality but everything about what they have done is completely genuine, it’s completely sincere. You can feel insincerity when you walk into a venue that is trying too hard.

TH: It’s more of a feeling than looking at a place and thinking ‘Oh they’ve got it right’. It’s a feeling when you walk in. and everything aligns – the music, the ambience, the lighting, the people, the door staff.

JS: You can spend millions on a fit out but if you don’t get the basic elements right – even a greeting from the bartenders – it’s not going to work. That whole familiarity thing is really important. There was this famous restaurant reviewer and everyone always asked him what his favourite place was and he said that it’s not the Rockpools or the Tetsuyas, it’s a little bistro where he knows what he’s going to get and he has a favourite dish and there was a couple of guys behind the bar who would come and say g’day. It’s one of those things that can really make that experience – just that little bit of familiarity.


MN: I’ve always loved the Time Out Neighbourhood Bar award. Because that means that it is an extension of your living room and there is something to be said about that, it’s really cool. There are so many bars that can fit into that category and that’s a wonderful accolade to be recognised for.

ELT: It changes the standard as well. You’ve got bars like Bulletin setting the yardstick at a super high level, but a Summer Hill wine bar isn’t trying to be Bulletin, however they are still absolutely rammed every night because it’s a place in Summer Hill where you can drink wine, eat cheese and have a nice time. That is all they aspire to and they do that well. It’s spot on.


MN: Your staff have to be so multitalented. People don’t get the engagement factor. They don’t understand the observation – a lot of people still have their heads down at a bar because they think they’re just bartenders. They forget that they’re everything else as well. It comes down to being able to read a guest, being able to engage with them and initiate a conversation and take the lead.

TH: It’s a fine line as well, because you have a bar team and you want them to create energy and you want them to have fun but you want them to include people on the other side as well. Sometimes it goes too far the other way and there is a lot of energy behind the bar but they’re not paying enough attention to the people on the other side of the bar. If you go into a bar and you’re not getting acknowledged because they’re having too much fun, straight away you just think “Nah”.

RM: You need that balance as well with the team. There is no point in hiring a whole team of your super nerdy mixologists or out-there heavily tattooed and bearded guys. You need to have a good balance. It’s fine to have someone that’s really focused and a little bit nerdy and possibly slightly ignorant and it’s good to have an out-there person, even if they’re not that skilled.

ELT: From a customer point of view, the energy level point is a good one because getting it right for the right time is tough. There are some big venues but you can walk in when it’s quiet and you’re excited because you have it to yourself and you know you’re going to have a good time – you don’t need it to be rammed to the gills. But then some venues you walk in and you think “oh no – are you open? Should I leave?”


Check out Part 2 here…

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