In defence of small bars
Pocket Bar in Darlinghurst, Sydney.
A few years ago, I went to a new, fancy bar/club joint in Kings Cross. I knew the guys who’d opened it, and it was the one time in my life when I've ever had access to a place that was genuinely cool, and oh how I miss that, but that’s another story. The entry was through a back laneway that was oh-so authentic, being terrifyingly deserted and boasting an abundance of dumpsters. As I walked up there for the first time, I remember feeling that finally, I’d arrived.
I typed the PIN code into the keypad and unlocked the door into a lovely space, decorated in a quirky hunting lodge-meets speakeasy style. The only problem with this proto-small bar – unless you find the concept of a bar that requires a PIN code ever so slightly undemocratic, of course – was that it was located at the back of a nightclub, the front part of which opened onto Bayswater Road, the strip in Kings Cross that’s crammed full of dubious backpacker bars in enormous old terraces. (That’s how they got a license before the new legislation came through in NSW – because they were technically the back room of an existing venue.)
I had some great nights there on subsequent occasions, but the first time I visited, I had to leave shortly after arriving – the whole venue had to close early because there had been a huge fight immediately outside the front door, and there was blood all over the pavement. (And no, I couldn’t resist looking.) Vinnies’ casualty ward would have been extra busy that night.
As I kept visiting my friends’ little bar, I discovered that violence was a regular occurrence on Bayswater Road. Brawls were commonplace, and more often than not, I saw cops dragging pissed idiots into their paddy wagons. On more than one occasion, the entire street was closed down. I soon learned to walk the long way around and bypass the Bayswater Rd strip completely – walking up a dingy alley alone felt far safer than walking along a street that was often full of hundreds of people.
This contrast between megavenues and an embryonic small bar is why I was so bemused by NSW Hospitality Minister George Souris’ suggestion that small bars had contributed to the violence in Kings Cross. I’ve visited around half of Sydney’s small bars since the government finally allowed the city to have sensibly-sized watering holes like those which revitalised the Melbourne CBD, and they simply aren’t places where people go to get punchy.
The death of Thomas Kelly, who was king-hit in the Cross on his first night out there, has rightly thrown the area under the spotlight, and it may result in a long-overdue crackdown. I hope so, because I do love going out there for late-night beverages, and it’s currently quite dangerous to do so. What we need, though, are measures sufficiently smart that they don’t punish people who drink within their limit.
Here's why I doubt that small bars have made matters worse. Firstly, the Cross was a seething hellhole before the legislation even took effect. Secondly, the legislation provides that all small bars must close by midnight, and there’s no doubt that the area is at its worst several hours after that. Thirdly, small bars’ patrons are generally much older, and, to be frank, richer – they have to be, given the prices. And fourthly, people don’t go to small bars for huge nights where they get tanked, dance into the wee hours and try to pick up; they go to have a quiet chat to friends. And while it’s true that these bars have lesser security than the megaclubs like Trademark, that’s because they don’t tend to need it.
In fact, you can tell the bars with violence problems in NSW: they’re the ones who have been required to serve grog in plastic cups because of prior glassings. I’ve never been to a small bar that had plastic cups except as a hipster affectation. (RIP, Doctor Pong.)
Small bars are not above criticism, of course, but if you’re going to fault them on something, make it the prices or the trendiness or the clientele. In small bars, the weapon of choice is not the broken beer glass but the sneering putdown, generally because another patron is sporting last season’s style of corduroy jacket or an insufficiently ironic trucker cap.
Fisticuffs are as alien to these places as the order of a Bundy and Coke. They are where people who are not pissed idiots go for refuge from those who are. We who prefer small bars have our faults, an unacceptably high degree of tossiness being chief among them, but we don’t tend to get into fights. While small bars might be cutely named for violent, stabby criminals – I’m looking at you, Love Tilly Devine – they don’t tend to lure them in.
The NSW Government has launched a sweeping investigation into every licensed venue in the Cross, and I hope they’ll find evidence that exonerates small bars. In fact, I’ll go as far as to suggest that they simply will exonerate small bars, at least based on every single one I’ve ever visited, unless there are underground Fight Club bars out there somewhere. Put it this way – if the patrons don’t get violent when they’re handed the bill, then they’re not about to start fighting in the streets afterwards.
I assume that NSW's Premier Barry O’Farrell is well aware of where the problem actually lies, because I remember him rather bravely visiting Bayswater Rd one Saturday night back when he was Opposition Leader. I’m sure he got an excellent sense of the kinds of venues that cause problems. (Hint: there are no small bars in Bayswater Rd.)
Of course, the debate over drinking and violence isn’t a new one, and nor are the legislative attempts to solve it. I remember being in Melbourne when they tried a 2am lockout, which hardly seemed necessary at the cushion-filled Gin Palace bar I was in – the only physical danger that loomed was of a pillowfight. They quickly abandoned the lockout, presumably because it made no meaningful difference while ruining the experience for law-abiding patrons, and have tried “time out” zones, among other things.
What I can’t understand about the problem is this: it’s illegal to serve intoxicated patrons. Bars can be hit with hefty fines if they do so, or potentially lose their licenses. So how is it that Kings Cross in Sydney, Swanston St in Melbourne, Rundle St in Adelaide, Fortitude Valley in Brisbane and the main street of Surfers Paradise are predictably crammed with dangerously drunk people every single weekend? Perhaps the drinkers of Australia are such brilliant actors that they can feign sobriety long enough to order another round of shots? Or perhaps there simply isn’t enough enforcement.
If we’re serious about fixing these areas, we should force venues to fund an independent enforcement team (think parking inspectors) with the power to ban any punter from being served drinks and evict people if they're too far gone, not just from venues but from the entire area. (People buying rounds for drunk mates is part of the problem as well, despite its dinki-di Aussiness.) All patrons would have their photo IDs scanned on entry, and the grog inspectors would be able to share their lists of soft drink-only and evicted patrons so that after one punter was banned, they couldn’t get entry to or be served alcohol at any other licensed venues in the area. If a punter wanted to challenge the inspector’s ruling, they could voluntarily take a breath test.
Here’s the thing: we have cheap breathalysers, and we have laws that ban drunk people from being served alcohol, and it’s time we put the two things together. Because anything that isn’t actually measuring whether people are too drunk and then comprehensively banning them from being served more drinks simply won’t work. And furthermore, I don’t see why people who drink responsibly should be punished by earlier closing hours or other draconian rules.
I’m not talking about imposing a limit of 0.05, but I’m suggesting that we impose whatever experts decide a sensible maximum limit is. If you want to exceed it, drink in your lounge room. The reality is that excessively drunk patrons are making Australia’s inner city areas unpleasant and dangerous. Too many people can’t control themselves, and so it’s time that the government got serious about stepping in – not only to prohibit violence, but to ensure that those of us who like to drink within sensible limits are able to keep doing so.