Darlinghurst, Sydney never used to be the trendy and expensive area that it is now.
It used to be full of illegal shenanigans: bootlegging, laneway gambling, buzzing brothels, drugs, and bloody razor gang fights.
Two notorious razor gang leaders from back in the twenties were Tilly Devine and Kate Leigh. Not your typical ruthless leaders, but they fit the role beautifully, frequently instructing their members to slash those who got in their way.
Men were forbidden to own a brothel so the Darlinghurst Matriarchs set about ruling the streets.
The gangs carried razors because guns were outlawed, and well, killing had to be done.
Some of this history I knew already thanks to the recent Underbelly Razor Gang TV series that glamourized the life of these two brutal women.
And some of it from my parents, who used to live by Kate Leigh in Surry Hills. They would often see her frail 80 year old body sitting on her front porch watching the world that she once controlled get along without her.
Ms Darlinghurst and the Sydney Bar Tours
These stories came alive for me on a recent Razorhurst Bar Tour with Ms Darlinghurst and Ketel One Tours. It was one of the most enjoyable bar tours I have ever done.
Sydney, once a city known for its flash and fashion, has now developed a bit of culture to rival that of Melbourne. It has seen a resurgence of small bars in the city, due to the change of licencing laws two years ago.
Instead of being filled with pubs and extremely large and impersonal drinking establishments, small bars are popping up in hidden laneways and garage sized buildings.
Ms Darlinghurst, our passionate and enthusiastic guide for the evening, created the small bar tours after the success she had with her Secret Foodie tours in the city. A food blogger with entrepreneurial eyes, she took the lead from similar tours that were being done in London and New York.
“Why not then do bar tours?” she thought. “Everyone wants to know where’s the best place to drink, just as much as they do to eat.”
And so Kettle One Tours, formerly known as Sydney Bar Tours was born, with her partner Simon Goram, a professional bar tender. She takes groups on hidden bar tours, cocktail bar tours, Bondi Beach Bar tours, and the slasher Razorhurst tour.
The Razorhurst Bar Tour
Of course no tour can start without a visit to the Laundromat.
(304 Palmer St Darlinghurst)
Back in the 20’s, in Sydney, drinking was illegal. There’s no denying a parched tongue, however and so clever minds got to work, Bingo games suddenly began springing up in the most unlikely places.
Bingo always began at around 6pm, hence the hidden name of the “Six O’clock Swill” The Bingo Sign sitting in shopfront windows let those who were thirsty know that it was time to go play, and we mean play.
In the spirit of remembering this, the small bar Darlies Laundromat was born.
Clothes hang from a clothesline strung across the room, washing taps poke out from the wall, and a small courtyard gives you the feel of the Laundromat it once was until 2010.
It was owned by a Buddhist monk, who made a healthy living selling pot as well as self-service washing machines. He soon moved to prison, which was great because we now have Darlies which delivers famous vodka cordial drinks, friendly smiles and a feeling of being at home in your living room with great friends.
Shady Pines Saloon
(Shop 4, 256 Crown St Darlinghurst 2010)
There is nothing on the outside of this bar to even indicate the house of sin lives here. The windows are covered over with paper and the only sign that there was somewhere for you to go was the bouncer opening the door for you.
Down the stairs and into dingy lighting lay the Alaskan inspired saloon which has won Sydney’s Best Bar award. We quickly discovered just why.
Shady Pines has an atmosphere of fun and freedom. You won’t find the restrictive Australian drinking rules tightening the fun out of your life, instead friendly bar men who actually want you to have a memorable time.
The taxidermic animals watching you won’t even turn you off; the regal moose making sure you finish your Old Pal, a cocktail of equal parts whiskey, sweet vermouth and Campari.
And then there is Muffin Man. The story of his name is not really important, what is important is that it fit, and it entertained us. He answered all our questions, telling us about the bar and giving us helpful tips and information about the area and some other cool small bars to visit.
He enjoyed our company so much he brought out the special Hoof Drink, guaranteed to put hair on your chest. “See,” he pulled down his shirt to reveal a chest full of them.
He lined 8 glasses along the bar and poured from a taxidermic hoof, a concoction that raised the hairs off my nose.
“We’re all in this together.” he reminded us passing each of us a glass and keeping one for himself. “From the beginning to the end.”
We nodded at each other, clinked our glasses and threw it all down. The hairs grew a second later forcing a sharp intake of breath and a clearing of our throats.
“Okay Muffin man, now you can tell us what it was.”
HOOF DRINK: overproof bourbon whiskey, just like Alaska!
The East Village Pub
(234 Palmer St , Darlinghurst)
Once known as the Tradesman’s Arms, this is the only bar on the tour that is a pub from Tily Devine’s days. Actually it used to be the place of her gang, and was known as the Blood House. Saw dust lined the floor making it easy to clean up the remains of the slaughter each evening.
Thankfully, the Tradesman’s Arms has lost its violent image and is a respectable and upper class place to have a drink and a nibble of some cheeses, tagine, and scallops, while enjoying a wide selection of Australian boutique beer.
The owners are brothers who used to visit the pub when it was falling to pieces and saw vision for the place.
There are four floors, each with their own bar, music and flavour. A roof top bar with great views of the city is quite the hit when in operation. Daniel, the owner, is hoping their battle with the council who closed it over old issues will be over by next year.
Love Tily Devine
(91 Crowne Lane, Darlinghurst)
No small bar experience would be the same without a wine bar thrown in. Love Tily Devine is more a tribute to the neighbourhood feel of that era rather than the ruthless killer herself.
Tucked down an alleyway, there is no way we would ever have discovered it without the help of the lovely Ms Darlinghurst. Small enough to only fit a line of tables as you walk through the front door and then another row up the stairs.
Love Tily Devine thinks that wine should express the grapes from which it was made and the place where those grapes were grown. In other words, it should taste like fruit and herbs, and flowers and minerals- not oak or alcohol.
We tried some of their organic best.
“Not your typical Sauvignon Blanc,” our server Matt explained, and none of us could identify the unusual after taste.
I think it was the purity of the wine, which is why it was hard to define.
Our tour sadly finished here. It has inspired me to continue exploring the small bar scene in Sydney.
Razorhurst Bar Tour Facts
Website:Ketel One Bar Tours
Cost: $55 includes food and cocktail at the second bar
minimum of 8 people needed on a tour
What’s been the best bar tour you have been on?
My stay in Sydney was hosted by Destination NSW. All opinions are of my own.