Beer and loathing in Victoria

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After years in denial, I have finally realised that bars and pubs in Melbourne leave ours for dead. And, like everything else, it’s pretty much Morris Iemma’s fault that there’s nowhere in this city of pompous, sardine-packed watering-holes-from-hell that I can go for a quiet beer on a Saturday night. Oh, and the loathing? That’d be jealousy.

Like any Sydneysider, I’m reluctant to give Melbourne credit for anything. They’re always yapping on about how cosmopolitan they are, how they’re the world’s most livable city, blah blah blah, like a little brother desperate for his cooler big brother’s attention. So you can understand how much it troubles me to have to admit that going out in Melbourne seems to me far and away better than hitting bars in Sydney.

This realisation struck me after I spent two days in Melbourne last week without actually managing to make it to any of the Commonwealth Games. A pretty special – though not deliberate – effort, even though they were giving tickets away. But I did go to quite a few bars, and I couldn’t help but notice how much nicer they are. Sadly, we could learn a lot from how Melbourne does it.

1) The licensing laws. Probably due to the lack of a powerful hotels lobby to ruin things for everyone, it’s much easier to get a liquor license. And as a result, the line between cafes and pubs is blurred. Melburnians can sit in a cafe in a quiet laneway, apparently without any corruption of their morals whatsoever. And because they’re drinking trendy stuff like Asahi and Grolsch, they can’t actually afford to get drunk and disorderly.

2) The atmosphere. Sydney’s idea of a great bar is a massive waterside space, standing room only, that’s jam-packed with overdressed tossers shouting over loud music. Melbourne’s is a quiet, dimly-lit back room that no-one knows about but the regulars, where you can lounge back on a sofa and chat languidly over music that’s barely audible. (No need to worry about cramming people in to cover water-view rent when the only water on offer is the unprepossessing muddy ditch known as the Yarra.) And sure, both scenes are totally posey, but there’s only one where you leave with a blinding headache.

3) The variety. Because there are more licensed cafes and small bars, there are correspondingly fewer pubs. And the liberal laws have led to lots of quite small, intimate bars that only seat 20-30, like Hairy Canary, Robot and the Croft Institute, which pack the dark corners of Melbourne’s laneways. Whereas Sydney only has two kinds of watering-holes. Down-to-earth pubs, which are great when you’re in the mood, and overly pretentious bars, where drinks are overpriced and the door policy dramatically overstates how cool the overdesigned, trying-so-hard-to-be-cool-it’s-awkward bar actually is. I can’t think of a single place in the inner-city where you can go and actually have a quiet drink on a Friday or Saturday night. And that’s not to say Melbourne can’t do noisy and backpacker-crammed – it has as many tawdry Irish pubs as we do.

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Cookie, a lovely, albeit posey, bar right on Swanston St

4) The lack of pokies. Because liquor licenses in Sydney are tightly controlled, and therefore expensive, landlords need high returns. That means big pubs and bars that cram in punters, and also pokies – a guaranteed return on that high initial investment. There are lots of pokies in Victoria too, but they’re in far fewer licensed venues. And Melbourne tends to have pokie-only venues called Tabarets, which let problem gamblers blow their wages in an appropriate level of drab squalor.

5) The attitude. In recent years, Sydney has spawned a lot of places that think the sun shines out of their bars. (Sorry.) Trying going to the Establishment or Hugo’s Lounge without feeling like a social leper – and if you can pull that off, then you deserve to have to hang out with the insufferable crowd of regulars. Melbourne bars’ preferred pose, by contrast, is to be laid back, meaning you generally don’t have to sport an Italian suit or know the DJ to get in.

It’s a perilous situation. The lack of decent places to drink in Sydney has led us to desperately convince ourselves that drab holes like the Judgement Bar are cool. The latest of these seems to be the Gaslight in Crown St fot instance. I remember when it was an dilapidated pub full of lonely old men nursing a glass of the house plonk. Now, it’s crammed full of young trendies every night, and impossible to hear yourself think, let alone get a chair. And if the decor’s cool, it’s only in an ironic sense. Same with the Hollywood. But they’re still better than sterile, overdesigned places like Cargo and Cruise.

NSW desperately needs Victorian-style licensing laws, like Victoria’s. It won’t lead to more drunkenness, as the hotel lobby argues, it’ll lead to less, because people will drink with their meals. And what nonsense that pubs serve alcohol responsibly. How could there be any more pissed people on our streets than there already are in the Rocks or in the backpacker area near Central?

Why on earth can’t the government trust to have a beer at a pavement cafe? It’s ridiculous. So much so that I’ve had to admit that Melbourne’s got it better than us. And that pains me even more than John Howard saying that the Commonwealth Games were better than the Olympics.

Now’s the time when our two lacklustre political parties jostle for our vote, and promise anything they think we want. I’m voting for whichever party promises to liberalise the laws, and add a pinch of Melbourne to the unpalatable cocktail that is our pub and bar scene.

Photo: Marina Oliphant

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