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The best small bars in Australia: what makes them successful?

We look at the winners of Australian Bartender Magazine's 'Best small bar' category and try to discover their secrets

Oscars-like in prestige, the Australian Bar Awards have just enjoyed their 14th year of selecting the best watering holes in the country.

Bar professionals from all around Oz turned up to the awards ceremony last month, hosted by Australian Bartender Magazine at Jones Bay Wharf in Pyrmont.

Among the proud winners were Varnish on King from King Street, Perth, who won the title of ‘Best Small Bar.’

With over 4,000 other small bars vying for recognition, the title was hard-won. 

Andy Freeman, owner of Varnish on King, told The Western Australian that the victory was ‘extra sweet’ given the competition.

Varnish on King is an American-inspired bar with an aussie twist: it specialises in top quality whiskey with edibles including 'fried chicken wings with pop-corn and buttermilk dressing' and 'wallaby dog with cheese and onion'. It’s an intimate bar with a loyal clientele and it's success lies in a unique atmosphere and a tantalising menu.

So what are the full criteria for making a success of your bar?

According to Michael J. Neff, bartender at New York’s Ward III and The Rum House, there are four aspects that make a good bar great.

1. Community

When you’re out with friends, everything tastes sweeter.  A bar full of people who know each other and a friendly bartender makes for a happier night. People become very loyal to a bar with a ‘community spirit,’ and an establishment that fosters this feeling will feel the benefits; not only in the working environment but the nightly takings too.

2.  Passion

It’s an undisputed fact that if you have true passion for a product, it is much easier to sell.

Personal passion is vital to the successful running of your bar, 

‘It takes real bravery and an honest love to tie the success of your bar to the public’s interest in whatever your passion happens to be, which can make the experience of going to these places special for regulars and strangers alike.’ says Neff

3.  Atmosphere

Atmosphere can come from a bar’s uniqueness, its historic quality or simply it's physical position. Whether it’s an old hang-out that Hollywood stars frequented in the '60s, a laboratory-themed venue accompanied by bubbling molecular mixology or a beautiful pub set next to a river – ambience can make a bar.

4.  Overall execution

Attention to detail in all aspects of your bar is something that will make most customers come back again and again. 

Neff says:  ‘My favorite bars are distinguished by the fact that they do a lot of things very well. Great music, good vibe, delicious cocktails, friendly service, cool room, great graphics.

‘These multifaceted spots are places I think of as the rock stars of the bar world—they are able to be many things to many people.’

With these points in mind, we take a look at the last four years' winners of 'Best Small Bar'.

2013: Vasco, Surry Hills, Sydney

Vasco has a very specific niche. It's Sydney’s first ever Italian rock bar. Described by Time Out as ‘fun – pure and simple’ with a ‘no nonsense vibe,’ it is uniquely-themed.

From the Fender bar stools to the framed photos of the Foo Fighters and the Beatles, the bar emulates the passion owners Max Greco and Luke Ashton have for rock. In turn, the atmosphere is laid back and non-pretentious.

2012: The Collection Bar, Richmond, Melbourne

Dimly lit with an air of mystery, The Collection Bar in Richmond entices customers in with its Southern American-inspired charm and hot Creole food. Not only does it sell cocktails (one of the few on Bridge Road that does), but serves some in miniature bath tubs and shots in small glass skulls.

The bar exudes a true New Orleans ambience, which will linger with you as long as the kick of the Cajun hot sauce they dollop onto their delicious fat-burgers.

2011: Shady Pines Saloon, Darlinghurst, Sydney

One of the two that won in 2011 (the other winner The White Hart has since closed)  is another American-inspired bar (maybe that’s the secret to success!), but  this time built to look like a hunting lodge.

The bar is embellished with all manner of taxidermy - a kooky two-headed sparrow revealing the dark humour at play.

Shady Pines promotes its own American craft beer alongside a large selection of bourbon and rye.

2010: Grasshopper, Temperance Lane, Sydney

Described as ‘quirky,’ The Grasshopper’s owners Belinda W Lai, Martin O’Sullivan and John Toubia make sure they source ‘second hand furniture wherever possible’ and provide ‘whole and organic food and wines.’

The Grasshopper's main aim is to foster community spirit, with the feel of a cosy small town drinking hole – despite being in central Sydney.

From crates doubling up as seats and old jars and beakers for cocktails, they have embraced the urban up-cycling vibe. The fact that it is so hidden away makes it even more precious to the locals that know about it .

Of course, in order to make a great bar you have to have great staff. Training is key, so make sure you take a look at Australian Bartender’s top training programs for bartenders .

If you are interested in buying your own bar, take a glance at our bars for sale in Australia.

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