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A Bartender’s Guide to the Best Bars in Surry Hills, Sydney

Surry Hills is Sydney's hip alternative suburb
Surry Hills is Sydney's hip alternative suburb | © martin berry / Alamy Stock Photo
Whether it’s a cosy speakeasy in a hidden alleyway, a classic cocktail joint or traditional pub, it’s all found in Surry Hills. And when it comes to scouting out the best in the area, it’s hard to pass up the advice of the bartenders in the know.

Surry Hills possesses a pretty unique vibe, but the close-knit community is the secret to its charm. “Having so many venues close to each other makes for a great bar crawl for guests, but also for us,” says Alex Dowd, one half of the team behind hallowed tequila bar, Tio’s Cerveceria on Foster Street. “It’s good in a jam, but also just to cry on each other’s shoulders, celebrate busy services and to have an off-site staff room for a cheeky beer.”

Surry Hills has a rich and diverse bar scene | Courtesy of Poly

Dowd and business partner Jeremy Blackmore first entered the scene as bartenders, serving up drinks at Shady Pines Saloon off Crown Street before jumping at the chance to do it themselves, opening Tio’s in 2011.

The duo behind Tio’s started at Shady Pines Saloon | Courtesy of Shady Pines Saloon

“For us, what we love most about Tio’s is seeing people that have worked with us over the years popping up in other great bars around the country and transplanting that little bit of Tio’s magic everywhere,” says Dowd. “Our bars thrive on service, it’s why people come in, and it’s great to see the people who have helped shape our dream into a reality taking that passion and investing it elsewhere.”

Cocktail hour is a serious business in Sydney | © Helen Yin / Getty Images

Having been a part of the Surry Hills bar scene for almost a decade, Dowd has learnt a thing or two about where to go for a drink and a memorable night. Here are his top bar picks.

Shady Pines Saloon

Bar, Pub Grub, $$$
While technically on the Darlinghurst side of Crown Street, Shady Pines is where Dowd and Blackmore first met. “It’s an iconic Sydney venue that started it all. The original and the best,” says Dowd. The journey is as exciting as the destination when it comes to scouting out this perennially popular watering hole, which isn’t signposted and has an entrance located at the end of a nondescript alleyway. Inside, warm mood lighting and Wild West-style decor set the stage for cocktails that really pack a punch, though their standard is whisky served with fresh cloudy apple juice and a bowl of peanuts.
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Poly

Restaurant, Wine Bar, Australian, Wine
According to Dowd, the real joy of Poly is working out exactly what it is. “Is it a bar? A restaurant? Whatever it is, it’s bloody delicious.” Housed within the Art Deco Paramount House Hotel on Commonwealth Street, Poly is a great place for a couple of quick cocktails or a longer night out – there’s a 12-page wine list, after all. The team behind Poly is the same as that behind acclaimed restaurant Ester, located in nearby Chippendale, so, naturally, the food is given as much thought as the wine. Its dynamic food menu includes diamond shell clams with dashi butter, and sweet and sour lamb ribs.
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The Wild Rover

Bar, Pub Grub, Irish, $$$
Don’t let the name fool you – The Wild Rover isn’t your average Irish bar full of Guinness-guzzling expats fresh from the Emerald Isle. This cosy exposed-brick space pours both classic and imaginative cocktails – don’t miss the Guinness Punch, a creamy concoction described as “a very moreish Jamaican milkshake” – as well as an enviable whisky collection, plus a rotating roster of craft beers. Food is limited, but the house-made lamb sausage rolls are to die for.
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Meal service:

Dinner, Late Night

Atmosphere:

Cosy
Mon - Fri:
4:00 pm - 12:00 am
Sat:
12:00 pm - 12:00 am

Butter

Restaurant, Fast Food, $$$
Like Poly, Butter is that over-achiever of a venue that does both food and drinks exceptionally well. And if that isn’t enough, it also happens to be a sneaker shop, proving so popular it branched out from its original home on Hunt Street to set up shop in Sydney’s western hub of Parramatta. “Butter has excellent fried chicken, but the donuts are worth the trip alone,” says Dowd. Want the best of both worlds? Ask the waiters for a fried chicken and donut: two tenders served on a cinnamon donut and drizzled with maple syrup – the perfect thing to soak up a dangerously delicious Staten Island Iced Tea.
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Meal service:

Lunch, Dinner

Atmosphere:

Casual, Loud
Mon - Thu:
11:30 am - 10:00 pm
Fri - Sat:
11:30 am - 11:30 pm
Sun:
12:00 pm - 9:00 pm

Royal Albert Hotel

Bar, Pub, Pub Grub, Australian, $$$
If there’s one venue that’s been there through the rise and rise of Surry Hills, it’s the Royal Albert, which has stood on the corner of Commonwealth and Reservoir streets since 1927. With a mahogany bar and plenty of local brews on tap, “The Royal Albert is the best craft-beer pub in Sydney,” says Dowd. Daily happy hour specials and a food menu comprising ‘pub grub’ featuring pan-Asian dishes, The Royal Albert is a great place for a quintessentially Aussie pub experience.
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The Cliff Dive

Bar, Nightclub, Cocktails, $$$
“Cliff Dive is one of Sydney’s best, and last remaining, true nightclubs,” says Dowd. He should know – stricter liquor licensing laws came into play in Sydney back in 2014 and saw the closure of several late-night haunts. Dowd and Blackmore opened The Cliff Dive on the Surry Hills border of Oxford Square in 2013, revamping an old basement space into a tiki hall complete with kitsch Pacific decor, AUS$10 (£5.20) cocktails and a great mix of tunes that keep the bar heaving with revellers on Friday and Saturday nights.
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These recommendations were updated on January 23, 2020 to keep your travel plans fresh.