From the Saloon to the City: The Americanised Bar Scene in Sydney (Grapeshot Magazine; Issue 2 Vol.
In recent years, there has been an insurgence of Americanised bars across Australia, offering more boutique beers and, of course, creative spaces to enjoy some ice-cold beverages. From rock-n-roll dive bar "Frankie's" to the taxidermy of "Shady Pines" and the candle lit intimacy of "Baxter's Inn", something has interrupted our usual interface of pokies machines and Tooheys on tap.
Americanisation and homogenisation are hot topics in an increasingly globalised world. As more and more small, American-style bars appear throughout Sydney, it's worth asking whether this is a new, expressive way for us to enjoy the variety Sydney has to offer, or a sign of increasing cultural homogenisation in Australia. Are we jeopardising our sense of integrity?
I went to "Shady Pines Saloon" in Darlinghurst and interviewed bartender Jimmy Sauve. To him, the emergence of American bars in Sydney is a great addition to the flourishing bar scene: "Sure, this place is American; but its relatable" he said.
"We could dress up as cowboys, but we don't. It's not about shoving Americana down your throat, its about expression and creating something new".
So many things that exist in Australia can trace their origins back to the US. Examples include cuisine (fast-food like McDonalds, Subway and KFC), shopping (supermarkets and megastores like the Macquarie Centre; which were first pioneered in North America in the 1930s), the film and music industry, and even cultural idioms. Sauve also highlighted the fact that the US pioneered the creation of bars and the cocktail culture. "When liquor laws were changed in America in the 1920s, many pioneers moved to Cuba and the UK, expanding its influence enormously into what the bar and club scene has become today".
So why is it that American-style bars are so popular in Australia? According to Sauve, their popularity springs from the idea of cultural appropriation, borrowing ideas from American bars, and putting an Aussie spin on it. This process creates something that can make the drinking experience a lot more exciting and refreshing. "It's very laid back, very fun. There's no dress codes, you come as you are."
In 2000, the NSW Government introduced legislation which allowed for the licensing of small bars. "Shady Pines Saloon" was one of the first small bars to open in Sydney, following the implementation of that legislation. Numerous other small bars have since appeared across the city. Some of the most interesting small bars now include a record shop that serves drinks down the hallway, illuminated rooftops swarming with people, and other spots that decide to not advertise themselves altogether. There is as much culture in the discovery of a venue as the atmosphere.
This small bar licence scheme is backed by the City of Sydney, which even provides videos on its website about how to open up a small bar. The scheme has clearly been very successful; last year, in the city alone, six new small bars were opened. The licensing scheme, according to Sauve, has provided an explosion in the bar culture in Sydney, and this is especially true of themed bars. "I think the increase of American-themed bars is great. This licensing scheme allowed many new bars to be created."
In recent years, many of these new bars have attempted to move away from American styles and themes. European-style bars, like "The Bear" in Chinatown, and Art-Deco bars including "Fifty-Fifty" in Darlinghurst have proved to be extremely popular. It seems, however, that the popularity of the Americana theme continues to dominate the majority of small bars in Sydney.
Sauve attributes the success of American bars to the fact that thirsty Sydney-siders are continually looking for something new and exciting. Maybe these multicultural elements are a testament to a cultural diversity and willingness to embrace new environments and experiences.
"No one would open a business unless patrons wanted it. If you've got an idea, just have fun and run with it. Its about the product you produce".
This, it seems, has been the secret of the American-style bar, and also one of the reasons why it is so relatable.
Along with our interest in new experiences and cultures, our palattes have shifted. In particular, craft brewers have re-energised the West Coast-style appreciation for bitter hopsy beers, like Indian Pale Ales and Porters. So drinking has evolved to encompass something far more holistic. We are offered variety as the norm.
Don't fear the Americanisation of Aussie bar culture. Help turn it into a peaceful co-existence instead.