Canberra bar hopping guide
Tongue and Groove
Canberra’s bar scene is quickly catching up to that of Melbourne and Sydney, according to Tongue and Groove operations manager Andrew Duong.
Since the Bunda Street bar opened in the space designed for a hotel in 2009, Andrew believes the city’s reputation has grown tremendously.
“We are pleased with how the business has operated and grown in the last couple of years,” he said.
“The Canberra bar scene has grown significantly in recent times. Years ago we had to travel to Sydney or Melbourne to see all the elegant and quirky bars but now with a market for that in Canberra, some fantastic venues have opened up in the city area and beyond.”
Tongue and Groove’s place on that scene has cemented during Andrew’s time in charge of the bar, with a growing reputation for some of the best DJs in the area – as well as good food.
“Customers are enjoying our chef’s new European style food and menu,” Andrew said.
“As a multi-faceted venue with both a restaurant and a bar, we have catered a menu that customers can enjoy in both areas of the business.
“We cater our DJs and music to suit the clientele that visit at particular times. All our resident DJs are highly experienced, they know how to please a crowd and build that enjoyable atmosphere.”
That atmosphere has been enhanced with the addition of gastronomic-influenced cocktail creations in the past few months, which is a first for Canberra.
“Our bar guys worked closely with our head chef to create some cool gastronomic cocktails, including drinks inspired by classics such as amaretto sours and gin brambles.
“Cocktails like these aren’t seen much in Canberra, if at all.”
TONGUE AND GROOVE
A: Cnr Bunda Street and Genge Street, Canberra City P: 6230 4455 W: tandg.com.au
“Never confuse motion for action.”
That famous Ernest Hemingway quote is the motto by which Grant Macara runs Soju Girl.
Just more than a year old, the Northbourne Avenue bar and restaurant has firmly cemented its place among Canberra’s elite, through a mixture of stunning cocktails, relaxed ambiance and intriguing modern cuisine.
“I’m a bit of a literature buff and that’s where the quotes come from,” Grant says, as he points to the main wall as you enter the venue.
“The Hemingway quote is our motto. It’s important to make sure we have a consistency and not just change things for change’s sake.”
Nestled in the historic Melbourne Building, Soju Girl’s blend of predominantly Thai and Japanese foods have created a modern Asian fusion that few can replicate.
Led by head chef Derek Brown, the mix of Asian spices and local produce has proved to be effective with a varying clientele.
“We think of ourselves as a pub with a restaurant,” Grant said.
“We wanted this place to be a local for people who live and work in the city, and that’s how it has become.
“From the cocktails to the food, we pride ourselves on fresh, top quality produce.”
One of the major changes in its first year has been the development of the Canberra Bar Front, in collaboration with a number of other City bars.
The collective works together to improve the Canberra bar scene and it has enhanced training and networking opportunities for the bar and its staff.
“It all came about with an inter-bar paintball challenge, the west-side of Northbourne [Avenue] against the east,” Grant said.
“From there, we’ve had cocktail competitions, group training and a whisky master class at Hippo Bar.
“I think it’s important to provide a work-friendly environment and things like this can definitely help that.”
41-43 Northbourne Avenue, Canberra City P: 6257 5328 W: sojugirl.com.au
The speed of change in Canberra’s bar scene has surprised Honkytonks director Tom Hertel.
Just one year on from opening in Garema Place, Honkytonks has arguably changed the direction of the city’s bar culture, transforming Canberra City into a year-round destination.
“We could not be happier. We have had a fantastic year starting with a crazy opening summer and a terrific winter,” Tom said.
“We have made many friends and drunk a tonne of sangria.
“We can’t believe how quickly the bar scene in Canberra is developing. We are by no means the new bar in town, which is great.”
The ethos at Honkytonks has been, in Tom’s words, the combination of “music, art and tequila” and it’s something that’s been a hit with City drinkers.
From art exhibitions to international DJs and the addition of homemade tacos, the eclectic mix has appealed to everyone from public servants to hipsters.
“We have been lucky enough to host numerous parties and events at Honkytonks over the last year. All the Wednesday exhibitions certainly sit somewhere at the top of the highlight list, along with some of our reggae gigs that we have had the pleasure of putting on,” Tom said.
“These creative individuals play such a key role in helping us develop our identity as a venue and build a creative culture around the bar.”
That creative scene has latched on to Honkytonks, along with a handful of other City venues, and Tom believes that it is the future of Honkytonks.
“Our passion at Honkytonks is, and always will be, music and art. Now that we are a bit more established as a Canberra venue, our priorities lie well and truly in building the local art and music scene,” he said.
“We have been blessed by so many talented people exhibiting their work at Honkytonks and are fortunate enough to have many more to come.”
A: 17 Garema Place, Canberra City P: 6262 6968 W: drinkhonkytonks.com.au
When Nick Tuckwell and Mike Kadinski took over Kremlin Bar last year, they aimed to change the way the Northbourne Avenue venue was perceived.
Gone is the heavy Russian theme, the dark walls and the goth feeling and in its place is a focus on customer service, quality cocktails and a chilled atmosphere.
“It was much more heavily Russian themed before but now there’s so much focus on service that we’ve earned new customers and built a reputation for it,” Nick said.
“Our whole thing is building a rapport with customers, we like to have a relationship with people and to be honest, the results are exceeding our expectations.”
With a focus on high end cocktails, ciders and beers but at reasonable prices, the duo’s first strides into bar ownership look to have been successful.
Among the cocktail menu are signature drinks including the Alligator Boogaloo – which consists of Paraiso, vodka, peach and guava – while the duo, along with bar manager Duncan Stanton, offer freshly squeezed fruit juice in many drinks.
“When you see the juice squeezed to order, you know you’re getting something that little bit different,” Nick said.
“We have worked on the techniques and the products, including the introduction of a tapas menu, and it seems to be working.”
In 18 months at Kremlin, Duncan has seen a number of changes but he believes the bar has cemented – and enhanced – its reputation for quality.
“I love the ethos here and the quality of the drinks,” he said.
“It’s a great place to work. We have so many different types of people here, it’s very diverse. It’s all come together very well.”
KREMLIN BAR AND TAPAS
A: 65 Northbourne Avenue, Canberra City P: 6257 7779 W: kremlinbar.com.au
Staying ahead of the competition is part of the philosophy at Hippo.
Nestled above Garema Place in an oasis of style and comfort, Hippo’s reputation for a varied and impressive range of cocktails spreads across Canberra, and bar manager Adam Nordone works hard to keep it that way.
“Our cocktails are carefully selected from past classics dating back to the 1850s,” he said.
“We also meet once a month to discuss new ideas, flavours and products to continuously create new and distinctive dabbles.
“Our bar staff come from far and wide, some joining Hippo with past knowledge and skill, and others who are fresh to the land of brews, liquors and intoxicants.
“We spend a lot of time and energy training staff and believe that you can never know everything about our unique little world so we strive to learn new things each day.”
Since opening in 2000, creations like the champagne-based Japanese Schoolgirl and the Martini-based Austin Monk have become well known with Canberra drinkers, who turn to Hippo for a combination of well-crafted beverages and DJs.
“Our DJs are encouraged to ‘read the crowd’ so that the flow of music builds ambiance and caters for all who come to play at Hippo,” Adam said.
“This year alone, we have had an amazing year for live music, probably one of the best ever. We had so much quality local live music on that we have had to also go with Thursday live music, and it’s a broad range.”
The addition of a balcony to Hippo so drinkers can sip cocktails overlooking Garema Place will “add great character” to the venue, Adam believes, and is set to continue the growth of one of Canberra City’s most popular haunts.
A: 17 Garema Place, Canberra City P: 6257 9090 W: hippobar.com.au
Every time a James Bond movie is released, the need for martinis skyrockets.
Down in Garema Place, the beverage of choice at Playground has been the martini since the bar opened in August and co-owner Antony Arena is expecting a rush of Skyfall related orders in the warmer summer months.
“The martinis have done really well for us, even though we have lots of different orders and we custom make stuff,” Antony said.
“It’ll be interesting to see if we have more orders for drinks of the shaken, not stirred variety.”
Combining a classy look with a laid-back atmosphere, Playground has attracted keen interest from a wide range of Canberrans, with most looking to combine casual tapas eating with a few cool cocktails.
Based in the “bustling” Garema Place thoroughfare, Antony – along with fellow owners Ilya Mastoris and Nino Arena - believes the combination of the location and the offerings has enticed many into the bar.
“We get the crowds we thought we would get from being in this location and now we have the outdoor area and the warmer weather, things are keeping busy,” he said.
Capitalising on the existing relax atmosphere is next on the Playground agenda, with a DJ booth and Sunday recovery sessions on the horizon.
“We’re investing in a DJ booth that will host some of the best talent around. There’ll be a mixture of sessions but the ideas so far include a Sunday brunch recovery session with some chilled music. There’s a few ideas still floating around though,” Antony said.
A: 25 Garema Place, Canberra City P: 6262 7171 W: facebook.com/25GaremaPlace
When it comes to good old-fashioned pub entertainment, The Phoenix has it all.
Tucked away next to the bus interchange on East Row for the past 19 years, The Phoenix is home to everything from poetry readings to film nights, just the way owners Sean Hannigan and Kieron Cloheffy like it.
“These are the things that motivate us. A lot of bars are so money driven. We need to make a dollar but I think it’s important to do something you love,” Sean said.
Among the events that have struck a chord with City drinkers is the Bootleg Sessions, a weekly local music showcase night that brings the best Canberra has to offer out into town on a Monday evening.
Events like the Bootleg Sessions draw a mixed crowd to The Phoenix, a pub which resembles a traditional English watering hole.
“This place wouldn’t look out of place in England or in Ireland,” Sean said.
“I think the popularity is down to the fact that it’s a pub for everyone. We don’t focus on only one group. We get public servants on $250,000 a year drinking next to first-year uni students and musos.
“The pub is well embedded in the artistic community and that’s the way we want it to be.”
The return of The Phoenix’s own charmingly titled music festival – Hey dad, can you pick me up from Josh’s, otherwise it’s like two buses – in February will continue the festivities, while Sean and Kieron have just secured a new 10- year lease.
“Canberra has changed a lot since we’ve been here, I’d like to see it open up a bit more but things are progressing well,” Sean said.
A: 23 East Row, Canberra City P: 6162 1581 W: lovethephoenix.com
After eight years at the top of the Canberra bar scene, Mark Ramsay is reflective of how Muddle Bar has performed.
“I think we offer a high quality experience with an emphasis on consistency,” Mark said.
“We describe ourselves as a cocktail wine bar and that idea is still something that we stick to. Eight years is a long time and things have changed around here in that time.
“In the last three years, there’s been a lot of bars open and not too many close so it’s become a competitive market, which is good for the drinking public.”
Muddle Bar’s place in that market has been cemented, in Mark’s view, by two distinct crowds. There’s the after-work crowd – Muddle is located in the law precinct on West Row – that descend on the bar for cocktails and beers after a tough day at work, while there’s a late night throng that heads to the venue for a place to socialise.
“Most of our customers are at least mid- ‘20s, so we don’t get the really young crowd in here, which suits our clientele perfectly fine,” Mark said.
“Our clientele are after a quieter atmosphere with background music and a really nice place to drink and that’s what we offer here.”
Mark jointly owns Muddle Bar with Joel Scott, and both are happy with a hands-on role in the venue.
They each work four or five nights a week and have a small staff of five casuals, with very little turnover of employees.
“People often come in and say they like seeing the same faces behind the bar each time they come,” Mark said.
“It breeds familiarity and friendship, which is something people are looking for on a quiet night out.”
A: 8 West Row, Canberra City P: 6262 7898 W: muddlebar.com
From the table created from a log to the collage of 1950s style naked women in the male toilets, there’s a lot that will surprise you in Knightsbridge Penthouse.
Ever evolving, the décor at the Braddon establishment includes works of art from Elke’s Luke Cornish, a fibre optic light system near the entrance and an assortment of chairs ranging from wooden stools to large leather-clad seats that would fit neatly into the next Snoop Dogg video.
And it’s that eclectic mix that lures in public servants, hipsters and hen’s parties from across the region, according to the bar’s promoter and overseer Minky Faber.
“The music we play is timeless, we have the best funk and soul DJs in Canberra and it brings a mix of people here because it’s a guaranteed boogie,” she said.
“On any night we can have a hen’s night, a football team and hipsters all in their groups but all dancing to George Benson. It’s brilliant to see.”
It’s not just at 2am on a Saturday where Knightsbridge Penthouse comes into its own. Combining simplistic elegance and contemporary ambiance, the venue is widely known for its cocktails and has been at the forefront of the sector since opening up eight years ago.
“This place used to be Mortis [a death-inspired bar] and before that one of the first gay bars in Canberra so it has a long history of offering something different but something quality,” Minky said.
“It’s evolved into Knightsbridge Penthouse and it’s just getting better and better.
“We take cocktails seriously and we’re influenced by what our customers want. It’s interesting to see how tastes change.
“When we first opened it was very muddled, lots of fruits and fruit juices involved but probably four years ago we saw a renaissance in classic cocktails and that’s been where we’ve been going.”
Headed by bar manager Pete Thomson, the young bar crew are taught the tricks of the trade, encouraged to watch YouTube videos of other mixologists in action and often read the guide books to create the perfect drink.
“Pete is a friendly and fun loving character and that’s really important for us for our bar staff and for the feel of the place,” Minky said.
“One of the things we’ve done recently is increase the standard of what our bar staff wear.
“People come to bars to meet people, it’s just a fact of life. And people dress up when they come to bars like this, they put in a lot of effort.
“So it’s only right our bar staff put in the same amount of effort. This is a fantastic place to work, people often stick around for a long time and we are determined to stay ahead of the competition by giving that little bit extra.”
A: 1/34 Mort Street, Braddon P: 6261 6221 W: knightsbridgepenthouse.com.au