They say nothing good ever happens after 2am. Perhaps the proverbial ‘they’ are the ones missing out, because some of my favourite memories have happened in those magical witching hours – a delicious sliver of time where nothing is expected of you, and anything could happen.
When I first moved to Sydney a little over ten years ago you could go out on Thursday and get home on Monday. And, even if you didn’t, there was the joy of knowing that – hypothetically – if you wanted to, you could. Restaurants and bars were jam-packed, patrons spilling out onto the streets, people queued up for clubs, and often, on my way down Oxford Street to my coffee shop job at the crack of dawn, I’d see groups of still-glittery revellers kicking on. Then, of course, came the lockout laws, which caused the slow but steady decline of Sydney’s nightlife. A divisive and downright no-good-very-bad policy, which missed the real issue, did nothing to make Sydney feel safer and throttled the once vibrant late-night scene across the city. And then Covid-19 was a real nail in the coffin.
But it seems that, finally, slowly but surely, things are starting to sparkle again. New venues with properly late licences are re-emerging, offering late night dining, live music and good things to drink. Thank god, because in a town that positions itself as an international city, a martini in the wee hours shouldn’t be that hard to find.
So where do you go to let down your hair and kick up your heels these days? Where can you find a meal with more je ne sais quoi than le Big Mac post 10pm? Here’s my top five (in no particular order).
New from Swillhouse, Caterpillar Club is open everyday of the week from 5pm until late. There’s live music, DJs spinning wax, a bar that seems to stretch for miles and food until 3am (4am on Friday and Saturday). Sit at the bar or seek out one of the sexy red leather booths. Who’s round is it? Give yourself a brain freeze with a frozen Strawberry Daiquiri, or revisit the ultimate party starter, the Long Island Iced Tea. If you’re feeling your 90s New York Fantasy, order a dirty vodka martini with extra olives alongside the smoked cheese burger from Isobel Whelan-Little’s menu (you might recognise her from Brat and LP's Quality Meats; she’s now the executive chef for Swillhouse). But wait, there’s more. If you can get past the main bar, the Bamboo Room turns things tiki style, if rum cocktails and Hawaiian shirts are more your energy. No reservations. Vibes are immaculate. BYO shenanigans.
Nothing says late nights and good times like tequila. Or mezcal. Or both. Cantina OK! has held a special place in the Sydney scene since it opened down a laneway in a lock up garage space in 2019. Late night from the get go, from 4pm to 2am every day of the week, it’s a little bar with big energy. I’ve never had a bad time or a bad drink here. The margaritas are made with ice shaved by a vintage canary yellow cast iron manual ice machine. That’s dedication. Mezcals comes with a handwritten, emotional tasting note, and a plate of the fruit du jour sprinkled with larb spice and served with a lime cheek. Like all the Mucho venues, it’s the little details and big thinking that makes Cantina OK! somewhere you want to be so frequently the staff remember your name. Or your order. Also remember, it’s literally an inner city LUG so you might have to wait for a spot, especially if you turn up with a big group.
My current hyper-fixation is a double serve of Woo Samgyeop, rice, and steamed egg (plus extra spring onions from the salad bar) at Bornga Korean BBQ in Haymarket. It’s always pumping so you’ll probably have to put your name down for a table. I like to kill time by wandering around the Haymarket precinct and maybe sneaking in a pre-dinner beer. Bornga is open all week until 10:30pm, and 11pm Friday and Saturday (10pm on Sunday). This gives you time to wrap up and head over to karaoke at Dynasty, where you can belt out Fantasy by Mariah Carey with unbridled enthusiasm and order green tea and Hennessy by the jug. FYI, the rooms range from 8$pp or 268$ for a 25 person party room. Side note: if karaoke isn’t your thing, there’s also a Timezone in Paddy's Markets complete with photo booths, Dance Dance Revolution and air hockey. A date night I highly recommend.
Over to the west, Derrel’s is a new late night Indian joint on Parramatta Road, sharing a kitchen (and chef, Brendan King, previously Baba’s Place) with The Lady Hampshire next door. Open until midnight Sunday, Wednesday and Thursday, and 2am Friday and Saturday (closed Monday and Tuesday), the kitchen is open until they kick you out and it’s BYO to boot. Curries are served out of the classic bain-maries onto pastel pink plates with separate sections for your rice, sauces, naan and pickles. And it’s the perfect balance of classic meets comfort. They have mango lassi, but they also serve hot chips (with butter chicken sauce). It’s perfect late night energy. Grab a bottle of natural wine, some friends, and get yourself some late night tandoori fried chicken. Plus, if you have to wait for a table, the pub is right next door for a quick shandy.
Back in Paddington, affectionately called the Clubhouse to those in the know, open for over a decade and sincerely my favourite restaurant in Sydney, 10 William Street is open until midnight Monday to Saturday. The kitchen is open late, too. An iconic Sydney institution where if you squint, you could believe you’ve been spirited away to some tiny neighbourhood bistro in Europe. With chef Francesco Ruggiero in the kitchen, you could order off the menu with your eyes closed, but I’ll probably be having whatever is his favourite, or especially seasonal. Followed by a big bowl of off-menu cacio e pepe with some focaccia to sop up the extra sauce and a glass or two of natural wine and probably a martini for dessert, taking up a spot at the bar for hours. The kind of place where you’re sat next to a friend, whether you knew them 20 minutes ago or not. Perfect.
FYI … ARQ and Club 77 are still around too. IYKYK, and I’ll see you on the dance floor.
Images: One, two, three.