Small Bars In Wollongong

Wollongong’s nightlife grows up.

Part 1

Somewhere between me being 45 and nearly 60, Wollongong’s nightlife has been through a metamorphosis. At one time, Wollongong had a reputation for being violent. Rolling brawls spilled out of places like the Glasshouse onto the streets and kept people like me at home.  We didn’t feel comfortable sharing noisy venues with barely-clad chicky babes and young men whose sole goal was to get “maggoted”. My friends and I stayed at home and had civilised dinner parties, sometimes venturing out to the popular Little Prince* only to be disappointed because we couldn’t find a seat.

(*I’ll review the Littel Prince in another post)

More recently and I’m reticent to use the word “suddenly” because I’m sure it has not been sudden, there has been a torrent of small bars setting up shop. These places have style, the music is quieter, the seats more comfortable and the lighting more subdued.

It’s not so much a case of Wollongong changing from an ugly caterpillar into a butterfly, because some those rowdier places are still open for business. Rather, new classier blood has moved into the neighbourhood offering more choice to a broader range of patrons. In fact, we’re spoiled for choice at the moment!

My friends and I are not looking for somewhere to “hook up” or meet a date. We want a place where we can feel comfortable alone or with a group of friends for a chat. We enjoy good food and are fussy in our choice of drinks.  We want background music that stays in the background and excellent amenities in terms of toilets, glassware and seating.

So which small bars are a good match for Old Chooks?

In the interests of research, I decided to hit the streets and review the boutique and small bar scene, systematically and scientifically. Armed with an online survey, I enlisted the help of some dedicated Old Chooks (Diane and Karen) to critically evaluate what was on offer.

So far, we have checked out six small bars over two nights in Febraury and March 2019.  We will bravely venture out again to check out more bars in the coming months. Tough work but someone has to do it!

Methodology

I must say we approached our task with enthusiasm, and frankly, I think we got a little overexcited. It was funny how having a purpose changed the dynamics of a night out, transforming it from a simple social get-together to a serious mission. It also meant we were more observant than we would have been otherwise. The methodology is simple. We each pick a bar, then work out the most efficient walking route between them. Once at the bar, we carefully check the food and drinks menu and the toilets. These are the deal breakers in our view! We try to engage the bar staff in conversation without giving our game away. We order a drink each and some food to share and then after an hour or so move onto the next bar.

Three bars, three drinks, three snacks.

In that hour, we are busy on our phones filling in the survey and discussing the lighting, the ambience, the crowd and the facilities. The survey is comprehensive, and each question is given a score. The scores are then added up to provide an overall rating. There are a few inherent biases in the method. The first bar on the list is reviewed early in the night, and it may not have yet reached its peak ambience. Another factor is that the third bar is considered after 2 drinks. Hopefully, we are not such cheap drunks that our focus is too frayed!

The reviews

Juniper Bar

121 Keira Street, Wollongong

Juniper was our first review, and we started there at about 7:30 PM. There were plenty of available tables. The crowd was made up of three male/female couples and a group of eight 30-40-year-old females. Four men walked in, looked around and walked out. Perhaps it was a bit girly for their taste? The concrete walls were sponged with pastel tones, and there was no other decoration. The wooden tables were garnished with small candles and a bit of greenery in a recycled jar. The concrete floor and walls created a noisy vibe, and the music was too loud for easy conversation. There was a definite need for some soft surfaces to act as noise dampeners. The bar itself had a charming backlit display which was very interesting.

Juniper, as the name suggests, is a gin bar. There was an extensive selection of gin but little else besides. The printed menu was very informative and gave good descriptions of the gin varietals.  They offered gin-based cocktails as well as straight nips and various tonic mixers. The drinks ranged in price from $11 – $19. The food menu was minimal (a choice a three) and there was no vegetarian option.  We chose the drinks plate: a platter of cheese and meats with very crunchy toasted bread ~ $25. The two wait staff were friendly.

BEST:  Excellent subdued lighting. The bar was nicely lit and looked very pretty.

WORST: Noise levels and food choices.

Black Cockatoo.

88 Kembla Street, Wollongong (behind the Creamies gelato shop)

I felt like a secret agent entering the Black Cockatoo with its hidden entry off an ice cream parlour. I wish you needed to give a secret handshake! Once inside the dark interior was reminiscent of an American bar. Booths lined the walls with a few standing tables as well as seats at the bar. It’s a small venue with a capacity for around 30. A large painted mural of a cockatoo and a few band posters were the only decorations.  Still, it had a nice ambience tending to retro. Two 20-something men were serving. They were very casually dressed in long shorts and t-shirts. The food menu was again minimal and this time consisted of packet chips, sausage rolls and cheese and spinach pies. Don’t come here looking for a meal! The drinks menu was small and limited to canned beers, a few imported draft beers and a  small selection of wine. Drink prices were reasonable, ranging from $6 up to $15.

When we arrived at 8:30, we were the only ones there for a few minutes, and the boys were happy to chat while not being obtrusive. With a very late licence, this would be the place for a late night meet-up, not an Old Chooks night out. There was one toilet which had no hand towels although it was tidy in other respects. The music was great, probably meant to be retro but it was all our era!

BEST: The secret agent feel and the music.

WORST: Food. Although, to be honest, if you were here late at night, a sausage roll might be perfect!

Births and Deaths.

2/74 Kembla St, Wollongong

Births and Deaths has had a fair bit of cash thrown at it. The black walls frame the $6000 -worth of Italian tiles that back the bar. There is one long re-manufactured stone table in the middle of the room which would comfortably seat 30 and cafe style seating around outside of the room as well as a few stools at the bar. The bar was half full, with an interesting mix of people. B&D offered table service, a nice touch. We chatted at length to one of the owners, Jared. He explained his philosophy which focused on sustainability. He said they reused as much as possible. The straws were metal, the coasters, washable fabric. The kitchen ran on the concept of minimising waste with the beetroot and pumpkin scraps leftover from the tasting plates used to make syrup for drinks. According to Jared of Births and Deaths, my friends and I are part of the targeted demographic boutique bars in Wollongong are looking for. Cashed up and older.  Young folk, you see “pre-drink” and are stingy about buying food. Old Chooks like us, on the other hand, go out early, buy more expensive drinks and order lots of food. He is also part owner of the Howling Wolf and works in partnership with Cavaeu (a hatted restaurant nearby). He was very accommodating and chatty and talked to us about his plans and the issues of getting a licence and permission to operate.

B&D is also a gin bar but has a broader selection of wine and beers than Juniper. The food was unique, and while not vegetarian, was mostly plant-based. We tried a pumpkin plate which included morsels of pumpkin cooked a few different ways as well as some cheese and tomato toasties.

BEST: The food and the staff.

WORST: The toilet while not unisex, was not very private and it was easy to “disturb” the privacy of other patrons.

Night Parrot

69 Crown St, Wollongong

The Night Parrot was our first stop on the second research night. The technical hitches we had with the online survey (Diane’s phone going flat and Karen using the wrong form)   had been solved, so we were ready to go! A fourth researcher, Tanya, joined us. There were five other groups of people and seating was not a problem. The other patrons were well dressed and included a few couples. The decor was dark and classy with one wall lined with highly varnished wood panels. The remaining walls and ceiling were painted black and gave the place a cave-like feel.  The Night Parrot is a wine bar and features a walk-in wine cabinet which takes up one of the on-street windows. The busy kitchen was visible from the bar and added significantly to the atmosphere with steam wafting up from the stoves. There was seating at the bar as well as open tables and three padded “booths” which seated three comfortably with the fourth at the other side of the table. There was table service, and it took a little longer than expected to give our orders. I had decided to do Feb-Fast and was not drinking alcohol, and while the others were quickly served their wine, I had to ask a second time for my soda water. The volume of the music created a pleasant, unobtrusive feel and allowed for easy conversation. The lighting was on the dark side. This along with the dark walls, gave it a cozy atmosphere. The bar area was brightly lit. The one toilet cubicle was unisex. It was large and spacious with plenty of extra rolls of paper, gentle soap and a blower dryer. The decor was eclectic with a large suspended branch acting as a chandelier.

A small selection of food was on offer. I had the dumplings which were tasty and good value at four pieces for $14.  The wine selection was a mix of local and imported wines and over a wide price range. Both Diane and Tanya ($22) were pleased with their grenaches, one local ($14) one imported ($22).

BEST:  The decor and the wine selection;

WORST:  We thought that with the way the seating was arranged, it would be tough to feel comfortable as a solo visitor.

Moominn

68 Crown St, Wollongong

Moominn is a  quirky, warm, cozy place. It reminded me of someone’s  Grandma’s lounge room. There is a mixture of seating from a few lounge chairs around a fireplace to kitchen tables with old lino chairs. Some seating at the bar is also available. There are all sorts of bits and pieces hanging from the ceiling. Baskets, flowers, light fittings,  bottles, umbrellas etc. The walls are entirely covered with mismatched pictures which scream out OP SHOP find. A large blackboard shows the specials as well as a few witty quotes. They had flavoursome zero alcohol beer, and I would have had another if we were staying longer.

 

The others all had the same red wine and seemed satisfied with their choice. The drinks were served in very simple, practical glasses.  The barkeeper was friendly and offered advice on what beer they had when I asked for no alcohol. The food was OK. I found it a bit oily although the others enjoyed the mix of deep fried mushrooms, cauliflower and cheese bites. A second plate with bread and meatballs was very garlicky. The two dishes were $50 in total. They were small servings, and this seemed expensive to me. The single well-lit toilet is out back through the kitchen.  Quaint sayings are painted on the walls, and the jumbled, over-decorated theme continues here.

The music, while pleasant, was too loud. There was a good crowd of around 20 in attendance, We originally sat at the bar and swooped on a table when it was vacated. The partons were a very mixed group with a good spattering of older people.  It would be easy to visit Mooninn as a solo traveller with the lounge chairs near the fire being cozy and private.

BEST: Quirky fun feel

WORST: Noise levels

The Throsby

2/88 Kembla St, Wollongong

The Throsby is one of the more established small bars in Wollongong and has been open for several years. I had been there before. The waitress seemed to be annoyed when we walked in, and her face showed it.  It looked like we had crashed a private party. It was only 10:10 PM. The first thing she said was the kitchen has closed. Most of the tables were empty, and there were two other groups. A group of four young men at the table nearest the door and a group of six young people at the bar.

The decor is muted and sophisticated. You could describe it as Scandi with blond timber and fine lines. A petite arrangement of flowers/leaves was on each table. The light fittings were chic woven timber. Their glassware was elegant, and I had a tasty pink grapefruit-soda water mix. The music was bland but at a reasonable volume. The one toilet was a bit messy and smelly. It might have been OK  at the beginning of the night but needed a clean at this time.

IMG_5870

Karen and Tanya both commented that the wine was a bit acidic. We could not comment on the food as we did not see a menu. Although the vibe was quite pleasant, we did not interact with the wait staff at all beyond ordering our drinks. We did not score the Throsby well, and we perhaps were over critical because of our less than enthusiastic greeting.

BEST: decor and glassware:

WORST: Reception on arrival. If you’re not open for business, close the door!

And the winner (so far) is…

The graph below shows our overall scores for the six bars visited to date. Births and Deaths has come out as a clear winner for many reasons. Jared was a star. Friendly, knowledgeable and willing to spend time chatting with us telling us about his philosophy. This made all the difference.column graph showing scores for bars in Wollongong

(not great photography sorry!)

Is your daily coffee habit making you fat, farty, and broke?

A cappuccino in a green cup.

I sat down with the intention of writing a short piece about coffee and the effect it has on our waistlines and wallets. As I started doing some research and looking at various websites on how many calories there are in various coffee beverages, how much coffee is drunk daily in Australia etc.;  it got me thinking.

Where does this coffee come from? How much do we as a nation, spend? What about worldwide? Are there long term health benefits or does it cause health issues? Is it sustainable? All those disposable coffee cups have got to end up somewhere. Can all those corner cafes be supported? Where would you go to meet friends/on a first date if you don’t want to drink coffee and it wasn’t beer o’clock yet? What about tea? Would we solve all/any the issues if we switched to drinking only tea? Is coffee even worth drinking? Now come on, be honest, do you even LIKE the taste of coffee?

My swirling mind became caught in a spiral of ideas worse than being trapped in a Pinterest Vortex! I decided it was way bigger than one post could handle and it needed to be a series of blog posts. This post serves as an introduction and sets the scene. I will follow it up with another 5 posts over the next few months. (It might even grow from that number!)

Part 1 will be about the Waistline Effect: here I will explore the pharmacological, health and dietary effects of caffeine.

Part 2 looks at the economic effects of coffee on a micro (your household budget) and macro (the global economy) scale.

Part 3 investigates the environmental impact: are we burying our cities under a mountain of disposable cups. Are Keep Cups going to save the day? Are we causing rural poverty in those countries that supply our daily fix?

Part 4: What are the cultural differences in coffee drinking. Is Australian the only place you can buy a decent skim cap? I need your help here. Have you ever been able to buy a decent coffee in another country?

Part 5: Tea v Coffee. Does it make a difference? Plus anything else I haven’t been able to fit into the other posts.

I feel like a bit of a coffee expert, not because I drink lots, but because way back in the day when I was completing my undergraduate degree in Food Technology, I wrote my Honours Thesis on “Caffeine and its Derivatives in Australian Foods and Beverages”.

With nothing more than my trusty portable typewriter and correction tape, I banged out one hundred and thirty pages of meta-analysis and lab results about methylxanthines, the chemical group which includes caffeine and other similar compounds. While some of it is outdated, it remains a good starting point.

On a personal note, I’m a tea drinker. I limit the amount of coffee I buy from a cafe to around 1 – 2 cups a week if that. This decision is based on three factors.

  1. Kilojoule intake. I drink skim milk cappucinos. That’s around 120 kcal or nearly 500 kJ which is approximately 8% of my target daily intake.
  2. Lactose intake – I think I must be a little lactose intolerant because milk-based coffee drinks make my belly grumble unpredictably with embarrassing consequences!
  3. I am stingy. $4 a cup every day that’s nearly $1500 a year!

I hope you’ll enjoy these posts and let me know your favourite cafe in the comments below!

I’m still working on Parts 3 – 5!

 

The Vietnam Cookery Center

A few years ago I went to Vietnam on my way home from Israel. Not exactly a direct route… but since I was transiting through South Korea it was not too much out of my way.  The main focus of the trip was to join a small group tour with Intrepid Travel from Hanoi in the north down to Ho Chi Min City. I stayed on in Ho Chi Min City for a couple of days to catch up with some friends who were living there at the time.  Vietnamese food is a favourite of mine so I was keen to try a cookery school.

Vietnam Cookery Centre - Ho Chi Min City
Vietnam Cookery Centre – Ho Chi Min City

Australia has a relatively large population of Vietnamese people who came here as refugees in the 1970’s and 80, when Australia had a more humane and sensible policy towards refugees than it does now … but that’s a different story.  As a result, it’s not hard to find a good, authentic Vietnamese restaurant.  Their cuisine has become almost mainstream with school canteens offering rice paper rolls as a matter of course. I have always found it tasty, light and satisfying.

Egg and Pork wrapped up in a mustard leave with prawns.
Green Spring Rolls – Egg and Pork wrapped up in a mustard leaf with prawns.

I booked an afternoon class with The Vietnam Cookery Center after reading reviews on Trip Advisor. The Cookery School is still open and gets consistently good ratings.

The School was on the fourth floor at 26 Ly Tu Trong St and easy to find. I was able to walk there from my hotel without a problem although it didn’t look like a cookery school at first!

a dark lobby area with a kitchen just visible through a doorway
View from the elevator

The three hour lesson was around $US40. There were two other women who were from Sweden doing the course with me. Their husbands joined them to eat what they had cooked after the class.

A group of 3 people two men and a women at a table waiting to start eating.
Sitting down to eat the fruits of our labours.

We were welcomed by a young woman who spoke good English (and whose name I don’t remember sorry)  who explained what we would be doing before we were introduced to the rather stern looking Chef  – Bai Van Bao.  I don’t think he spoke the entire time and he only smiled once… right at the end.  I got the impression this was part of the performance. Very much like the Iron Chef if you have seen that Japanese Cooking show.

A chef with black hat and jacket rolling up his sleeves preparing to cook
Chef Bao – a very serious chap!

The Chef would demonstrate first and then we would copy. The ingredients were all laid out, pre-measured and chopped.

A Chef stiring a pan with various dry spices over a gas flame.
Preparing the spice mix for Pho

All the dishes were made from scratch, except the pho (a beef  and noodle soup, pronounced “fur”). The stock and meat requires about 5 hours cooking time so this would not have been possible to make in the time frame we had. The stock was bubbling away when we got there and the Chef showed us how to add the spice mix at the end and assemble to soup.

The ingredients were very fresh, the recipes uncomplicated and the resultant dishes very tasty. As participants, we made  green spring rolls with a dipping sauce; sauteed chicken with spicy sauce and sweet basil and steamed rice with pandan leaves. The pho and a fruit dessert had been made for us. We walked away with a full belly, a recipe book and a nice apron. In my mind a great way to spend the afternoon.

a bowl of beef and noodle soup with a beer on the side
Tasty Pho

Finally a smile!

a chef dressed in black smiles as he holds a cook book.
Smiling Chef Bao

These photos were taken 2 cameras ago using JPG rather than RAW which I use to shoot now. Looking at them I can see my photography has come a long way!

Reflection of the photgrapher in a mirror
A theme from this trip to Vietnam was to take mirror-Selfies.

If you are looking for other things to do in Vietnam check out this post with 50 things to do in Vietnam