A look back at the changing landscape of our local bar scene

As a relatively recent import to Newcastle, I was shocked to learn that most of my favourite bars and restaurants only started trading shortly before or after my arrival in the city. Newcastle has changed so dramatically over the years – it is no surprise that so too has the food and drinks culture. In order to get a more complete understanding of how the bar scene has evolved, I spoke with industry veterans about their experiences in Newcastle.

Local pubs & gentlemen's clubs

Anyone who has worked in the drinks industry in Newcastle will be familiar with Bobby Hughes from Déjà Vu Wine Distributors.

A legend in his own right, with a great palate and unwavering charisma, Bobby arrived in the area in the early 80s when the drinks trade was dominated by pubs and clubs – a beer city, though many memorable restaurants feature heavily in our discussion of great places to imbibe.

His career in wine started at a gentlemen's club, pouring Wolf Blass Black Label and Lindeman’s Riesling, before spending time working at Tyrrell’s back when “there weren't even 10 cellar doors” in the Hunter Valley.

In the 1990s, while most locals were still predominantly drinking beer, Bobby remembers lots of wonderful restaurants with Jimmy Watson Memorial trophy-winning wines available.

“Like Winston’s”, he recalls, “where Rolly de With* worked as a valet, and the clientele would be nestled into the Chesterfield couches, eating, drinking, and smoking at the same time.” Winston’s has long since closed, but I’d be keen to bring it back – it sounds like a great time.

*Newcastle hotelier and AHA Hunter Newcastle President

Yeah the Knights

Fanny’s was such an institution that on my first visit to Newcastle, on the quintessential winding tour of Honeysuckle, Nobbys, and King Edward Park, a special stop was made in front of the now Argyle Hotel, formerly known as Fanny’s. Circa 2001, the infamous bar was managed by Ben Richardson, now the owner of Autumn Rooms, who eventually became one of the partners of Fanny’s and has shed some light on the nightlife at the turn of the millennium.

Transporting you back, 2001 was the year that the Knights won the NRL Grand Final – everyone was wearing ripped Tsubi jeans and the live music scene at Fanny’s was pumping.

The city swelled every weekend with an influx of party-goers from surrounding towns, and it might not have been ‘cool’ to party at Fanny’s, but everyone from tradies to celebrities were there.

Over the course of 10 years, the offering at Fanny’s evolved as the community and clientele demanded. The average drinks went from Jim Beam and Coke, Midori Splices and a lot of Red Bull, to Caipiroskas and mojitos. It saw the end of the indoor smoking policies, the rise of city apartments, and the pressure of late night trading which resulted in the lock-out laws.

3AM mayhem

Starting at The Exchange Hotel as an 18 year old, Lukas Thodas of The Grand Hotel cut his teeth in iconic Newy pubs leading up to the infamous lock-out laws. He paints a vivid picture of the city circa 2010, when people from as far as the Central Coast would travel to Newcastle in search of a fun, long night out. Most venues were large – a scene dominated by pubs, clubs, and live music.

It was no wonder that with two to three times the number of weekend drinking tourists as the city currently welcomes, that at 3am lock-out, mayhem would ensue. Aside from the inevitable circus of forcing all the often-intoxicated patrons onto the street at the same time, there were logistical issues too. 

How can you have a grown-up bar culture when you can’t serve cocktails after 10pm? How can we be taken seriously as a drinks industry when you can’t serve drinks in glass after 10pm? The licensing restrictions imposed on venues stunted the average pub from offering a more ‘grown-up’ drinks list, carving out a space for new operators to consider lower-occupancy, lower-risk operations which gave birth to the ‘small bar’.

Ahead of the curve

Just as the publicans were feeling the effects of the lock-out laws and pressure from the residents concerning late-night trading, a cocktail renaissance was brewing. This was a global phenomenon – a surge in education surrounding wine and spirits led to a generation of bartenders and sommeliers with a passion for teaching and sharing their knowledge. A number of high-quality venues started cropping up, some before their time, like the now-closed Bacchus and Reserve Wine Bar.

I spoke with Patrick Haddock of Reserve and Chris Woodger of Bacchus about this time in Newcastle’s nascent small bar scene. Pat credits Chris with “arguably bringing the best mixed drinks to Newie” [sic], and Chris concurs that Reserve was ahead of its time. While Bacchus and Reserve are no longer around, bars like Coal and Cedar have survived and thrived, adapting to the changing culture and trends. These early pioneers paved the way for a boom of sophisticated late-night venues and the remnants of their legacy can be felt far and wide.

In the last year, Newcastle has mourned the loss of The Cambridge Hotel, and while the live music scene is still an integral part of the late-night revelry, its closure marked a pivotal moment in the changing landscape of the scene. Also in the last year, the lock-out laws were removed and a huge number of new small bars have opened. It’s a groundswell time in Newcastle, the perfect time to celebrate the industry and how far it has come. 

Florence Diffey DipWSET is a Newcastle-based wine educator and co-founder of Vera Wine.