Last week I flopped on the couch looking for something to “decent to watch” on Netflix. I settled on Juliet, Naked, a rather clever 2018 comedy starring Ethan Hawke and Rose Byrne. It was light and funny with an interesting premise and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Ethan plays an old(ish), craggy, has-been rock star. His clothes are as messy as his life and his character has real depth.
I would NEVER describe myself as a movie buff and I can get halfway through a movie before exclaiming “oh yeah, I’ve seen this before”. My memories of Ethan Hawke movies are patchy and I couldn’t remember seeing Ethan in anything else. A quick Wikipedia search showed he has an impressive and extensive back-catalogue dating way back to 1985 reminding me of Hugh Grant’s long list of achievements. It turns out I have in fact seen at least two of his movies.
How to avoid endless scrolling
Last year, during the early stages of the Pandemic, when we were ALL locked in, I announced the (Un)official Hugh Grant Film Festival. Rather than randomly scrolling through Netflix looking for something “decent to watch”, I set myself the challenge of watching as many of Hugh’s movies as I could. The good, the bad and the ugly. The procurement of titles was in itself a challenge. I searched op shops to find DVDs, borrowed a few from the local library, borrowed some log-ins to subscription services I don’t have, in addition to the ones I had on Netflix or could rent on Apple TV. Over two months, I watched thirty of the more than fifty titles in his anthology. Pretty good I think! I have now exhausted all the movies I could find in Australia at least.
Impressive back catalogue
Ethan’s back catalogue represented a similar opportunity for a challenge and I am officially launching the (Un)official Ethan Hawke Film Festival!
After Juliet, Naked I re-watched Dead Poet’s Society which, after 32 years remains a classic and relevant story. Next, I devoured the critically acclaimed Before Series; (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight) a trilogy spanning 18 years both in real-time and in the plot. It traces the life of Jesse and Celine (Julie Delpy) who meet on a train in their early 20’s and follows them up nine years later and then again in another nine years in their early 40’s. There is very little action other than long, rambling and intimate conversations between the two leads. Sounds boring, but it is fascinating and so well played. If you are going to watch the series, do it in order and resist watching the trailers. Too many spoilers!
A mixed bag of goodies
Unlike Hugh, Ethan has escaped being suffocatingly typecast and he has played a wide variety of roles. In addition to acting, both on stage and for the big and little screens, Hawke has written screenplays and several novels. Looking at his Goodreads profile he appears to have a very handy side hustle narrating audio books too. He has also made a number of documentaries.
Although nominated for plenty of awards he has won only two. A Critics’ Choice Award for the Before Series and an Independent Spirit Award for First Reformed.
So tonight it will be Gattaca, I’ve seen it a couple of times before having used it as a teaching aid when trying to get Year 10 interested in genetics and DNA codes. There is only one tiny sex scene you need to skip!
That will be five down and only eighty (80!!!!!!!) more to go! I’ve got three months off work so it might be just the thing for my upcoming Great Southern Road Trip. It can be the (Un)official Travelling Ethan Hawke Film Festival.
If I have any energy left after that I might branch out and read his novels!
Wish me luck!
PS: Since writing this post and before publication, I have now watched Training Day, Taking Lives and Boyhood, all good! Training Day with Denzel Washington is suspenseful and violent, I watched much of it though my fingers! Denzel won the Oscar for Best Actor for this one and Ethan, while nominated for Best Supporting Actor, didn’t take home the trophy. Boyhood is another long term project and follows the same actors over 12 years. It’s almost a documentary.
PSS: Add to the list: Adopt-A-Highway! OMG such a lovely, sad, poignant story with a happy ending! Once again not much action and Ethan is in every scene. That must be hard work! Why has this guy not won an Oscar???
A few months ago I published my first set of reviews for small bars in Wollongong. Six bars done over two nights. In that post, I promised to review some more with my trusty group of Old Chook researchers. You can read that first comprehensive review here.
Since then the group has grown. From three foundation members we now have five. This poses a few questions in regards to the reliability of our study. I have had to do some tricky statistical calculations to try and reduce any problems with our data. The total scores for all the bars have been moderated by calculating the raw score dividing by the number of participants and then multiplying the per person score by 4 to give a moderated value. Rough and ready perhaps, but OK for these purposes.
This review covers six more small bars in Wollongong. Red Square, His Boy Elroy, the Humber Bar (in early June); Howling Wolf, The Little Prince and The Bavarian (in early August) . We used the same scoring matrix we used in the other reviews.
June Session Reviews:
108 Keira Street
The Red Square is a vodka bar. We were there early, and as we have noticed before for this early time slot, the place was more or less empty. A few groups of office workers were having extended Friday after-work drinks. The vibe was friendly and relaxed.
The decor is dark with lots of bright neon lights on the bar itself while the rest of the lighting is very subdued – you could say it was dark! But we like that. Easy on the eyes and you don’t feel like you are in a supermarket. This bar won the prettiest bar competition for the night. The back-lighting behind the bottles and the matching labels were very effective.
The bare floorboards and bare walls made for a noisy interior although we all agreed the playlist was good. The music itself was not obtrusive and we liked the selection. They do have live music but we left before that started. While it was easy to get a seat, the seats themselves were basic unpadded stools. Despite being a vodka bar there was a good selection of other drinks and the prices very reasonable. They had some nice cocktails on offer. The food offerings were good and well priced, although you might find it tough to make a selection if you were vegetarian.
We would all go again. The service was friendly and efficient but there was little interaction.
BEST: Red Square offered good value for money for both their drinks and food menu with a good choice of offerings.
WORST: The seats. Sorry fellas but a cushion would be good!
His Boy Elroy.
Keira Street (in the shopping mall)
His Boy Elroy used to be in Globe Lane. I went there a few times at that location and remember it to be a hipster sort of place where neat beards would be de rigueur. Not now. The new His Boy Elroy would be best described as a sports bar. There were lots of TVs playing sports channels and sports related paraphernalia bedecking the walls. Even though it was relatively early – around 8:30 PM when we arrived, we had to wait for an inside table. We could get one outside but it was chilly and the outdoor heater not close enough to the available table.
Tasty and generous portions
As Old Chooks we felt very much out of place here, and while the bar staff were friendly and welcoming, the very obvious presence of security people was a bit off putting. The other customers were all at least half our age. HBE scored poorly in few areas. Firstly the toilet facilities. While clean and fragrant they are a long way away! As the bar is part of the shopping complex you actually have to go into the mall and find the toilets in there. Don’t leave it to the last minute is my advice!
There was a limited choice of food and drinks. Ten varieties of beers and only a choice of two whites and two red wines. It’s a burger joint so there are burgers and not much else on the food menu. We opted for loaded fries. The serving was very generous and they were tasty.
The music was described as loud doof-doof which made talking difficult. The one standout in the scoring was that we all agreed we would not go again.
This is not an Old Chooks Bar! If you are under 30 and looking for a place to hang out with friends, it would be a great place, but it’s not what we would look for in a good night out.
BEST: The food was reasonably priced and in generous portions.
WORST: The noise levels. TV on, Music On, People ON! Too much on!
The Humber Bar
226 Crown Street
Now, this was more like it. The Humber Bar is on three levels. It has plenty of room and each floor has a different atmosphere. We opted for the mezzanine level. There were only a few people there. It was more crowded upstairs, but as you should know by now crowds do not necessarily make a good Old Chooks’ night out! The Humber Bar has pleasant but minimalist decor. It has lounges around two sides of its triangular walls. The lighting is good, not too dark or bright and the volume of the music excellent. The food selection was impressive and at a good price. The drinks menu equally good and served in nice glassware. The bar staff were very friendly, with two people serving about ten people we did not have to wait at all and they were happy to chat.
Co-incidentally an impromptu drama unfolded in front of us. A 40-something man sitting at the bar cuddling a much younger woman. Another woman and her friend walked in. She yelled, he jumped, the younger woman disappeared and the friend spent the rest of the night consoling the older woman. Turns out the man’s wife had busted him with the “other woman”. Very dramatic although you could have missed all the action, if you weren’t so observant.
We would all go again. This was a good location for an Old Chooks’ night out and the upper level would be a good place if you are looking for somewhere more lively.
BEST: Wide selection of food and drinks.
WORST: The Humber scored well in all aspects; to pick a worst, it was the un-padded bar stools, once again. We could have sat on the lounges but that was not really suitable for a group of four.
We had set the date for our August research a few weeks in advance. As usual, finding a date when everyone is free is not easy, but the stars aligned and we had a date fixed. The unusually cold weather and predicted 100 km winds did not deter us from our mission! We rugged up with jackets, scarves and beanies and headed off, our group expanded by one more member.
Our planned bars for the night were, Howlin’ Wolf, The Little Prince and Another Burger Joint. We discovered that the Burger Joint had closed down so we opted for the Bavarian after cruising past Holey Moley and another bar underneath Crown Central. We avoided both of those but in the interests of social science we will go back to them to complete our study. But heads up, they may not score well on the Chook-o-meter. One is a putt putt golf bar, the other full of arcade games.
Down to business.
The Howlin’ Wolf Whiskey Bar
103/53-61 Crown Street (it’s in an arcade)
I arrived at the Howlin Wolf a little before 7PM. My Uber had come quicker than expected. The bar is located in a laneway that runs off Crown Street. There is a pizza shop at one end of the lane and a burger place at the other. The bar itself is very hip with dark interiors, some hand painted “artworks” on the walls and ceiling. By the time everyone arrived and ordered first drinks it was about 7:10. We had apparently missed happy hour by 10 minutes. Oh well… we thought… but then the next people to get served (by a different waiter) DID get the happy hour prices! We felt a little ripped off!
Despite this, the prices were still reasonable and the selection of wine good even though it’s a whiskey bar. The tables were small and the stools low and rickety. The music was loud although in good taste. We could sing along to it all. They probably thought they were being very retro but it was the soundtrack of our youth! Food was an issue. They did not have a kitchen of their own. They had a few choices available which came from the aforementioned pizza/burger places OR since they had deals with most of the other restaurants in the area you could order online and get it delivered. We opted to do without so the scores will be a bit low because of this. The stemless glassware was elegant and apart from missing out on the happy hour pricing, we were happy with the selection. The toilets were clean and abundant. 80% said they would return. Howlin’ Wolf is also a live music venue. They were setting up as we left.
BEST: The good playlist.
WORST: Inconsistent application of happy hour policy!
The Little Prince
The Little Prince is a flagship small bar in Wollongong. It has been open for as long as I can remember. I can’t find anything on their Facebook page to say how long they have been opened, but it’s a long time. It has been a steady favourite for many and was one of the first alternate wine bars to open in the ‘Gong. It is relaxed and elegant with a small indoor seating area and a larger outdoor area, some of which is undercover. It is a great summer venue. We were there in August and as I said above the winds were raging and the temperature below 10C. All the inside seats were understandably taken and we made our way out to sit undercover and near a heater. We kept our jackets and scarfs on. The seating is very comfortable and the general atmosphere cozy. We watched the wind whip the plastic walls in and out.
The drinks menu is good and there is a wide range of tapas and pizza to choose from. Our group ordered a pizza and some hot chips. Both came quickly and were piping hot. The servers were friendly and were able to advise on alternatives to a wine that was out of stock. The music was unobtrusive, to the point that none of us made special mention of it in our surveys. It was easy to chat and we stayed longer than anticipated. A good sign I guess!
BEST: Excellent food selection
WORST: While we were out of the wind, we needed to keep our jackets on. Not really a winter venue.
Crown Street – Wollongong Central Complex
The Bavarian is also part of the Wollongong Central Shopping Mall. It only opened very recently. It is advertised as a German Restaurant and Bar and is part of a chain. The wooden bench seating and bright lighting made it feel like a McDonalds with alcohol. There were also TV’s on the walls playing sports. Is this the thing now?
The bar staff were very friendly and welcoming. A fellow a bit like Hagar the Horrible opened the door for us. He was obviously security but unlike His Boy Elroy he was not dressed in black so he did not look like security. This must be part of the deal of having a bar in this complex?
The bar was nicely set up with glasses hanging from racks. The bar prices were not so pretty. Starting at about $12 a glass, which is not unusual, the servings were VERY small. You could buy a larger serve which was twice the price but not twice the volume. Food choices were good and we were able to select a few share plates. The fried Camembert tasty, but perhaps a little outdated? (or is it so out of date it’s retro?) 60% of us would go back. I think it would be a great venue for big group booking. You could be as noisy as you wanted without a care. It was certainly not the place to go on an intimate first date.
BEST: Glassware and quality of the wine.
WORST: Value for money.
And the winner is…..
So to get to the nitty gritty. The winner out of these 6 bars was the Humber with Red Sqaure and The Little Prince only a few points behind.
Overall, Births and Deaths is still our top scoring small bar in Wollongong, although there is not much in it. I think we may have been a little harsh on Throsby’s? Perhaps we need to revisit there and give them a chance to redeem themselves.
Stayed tuned for Part 3 when we finish off the small bars in Wollongong!
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!
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!
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.
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.
Jared – owner B&D
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.
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.
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
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.
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.