Make no mistake – Melbourne has some great small bars. They’re up there with the best.
Try Bar Americano, a tiny place in the CBD, down an alleyway (of course), with no sign (of course), and room for about 12 people if you really squeeze in. There are no seats, the cocktail menu is printed in Euros, and the bartender wears a waistcoat. It treads that line between trendy and pretentious with precision.
And Melbourne is full of similarly great places, small, friendly bars where you can get a drink without having to hear to the TAB in the background, where you can listen to the music you like and imbibe the drinks you like with just a few other people.
But still, Melbourne doesn’t have the world’s best small bars. Neither does Sydney. Great cities like New York, Berlin and Buenos Aires can’t even claim that title, although they’re worthy contenders.
The world’s best small bar scene, without doubt, is in Tokyo.
No one else can compete. This is a city of hundreds, thousands, probably tens of thousands of the smallest, coolest little bars you’ve ever seen. Serving world-class food and painstakingly chosen drinks. Playing great music.
Small bar fans: welcome to paradise.
Start with the izakayas, the bars that double as tapas-style restaurants, the neighbourhood eateries where people go to drink a few flasks of sake, maybe a cold beer, and eat small plates of amazingly good food. To find an izakaya, look for the signature red lanterns out the front. You may not speak the language inside, but that’s OK: everything is good.
Izakayas are everywhere throughout Tokyo, ranging from the fancy, upmarket joints serving haute cuisine to the dingy street-side places that dish up stripped-back Japanese fare at its finest.
That’s a good start to the night. But there are plenty more small bars to be enjoyed.
Maybe you’ll go for a weird theme bar like the Lock-Up or Alcatraz E.R., places in the district of Shibuya that are decked out like dungeons and spooky hospitals. They’re a little cheesy, but definitely fun.
Then you might head somewhere with a more subtle theme, like 8-Bit Café, a Shinjuku bar where customers play old Nintendo and Sega gaming consoles while they consume their drinks. Or Bar Plastic Model, a tiny joint nearby that’s decked out with small plastic toys from Japan’s early-80s boom.
The true joy of the Tokyo small bar scene, however, is a place without a theme. It’s one of the hole-in-the-wall establishments that the city is littered with; quiet drinking dens that have no need for a theme or any fancy decoration. They’re just great places to drink.
Try Bar Martha in Ebisu. Something feels familiar here: it’s down an alleyway (of course), with no sign (of course), and space for about 12 people if you really squeeze in. This is one of Tokyo’s many whisky bars, a dark, cosy place where bottles of expensive spirits are lined up on the bar, and a DJ spins ’60s and ’70s classics on vinyl records.
Japanese whisky is served with a single, perfectly chipped sphere of ice. Bar snacks are free. The place oozes class.
And a bar like that is no anomaly in Tokyo. They’re everywhere. Above the street, below the street, unmarked doorways that lead to nighttime perfection.
There are jazz bars with live bands. Punk clubs in trendy Shimokitazawa. Gaming bars in Shibuya. English theme pubs. Anime bars in Akihabara.
The Golden Gai district in Shinjuku is a huge network of alleyways lined with small bars, some that have room for only four customers, some that don’t take to foreigners too kindly, but others that will provide the best night of your life. There are themed bars, fancy bars, dingy bars and plain, middle-of-the-road bars. All are worth exploring – if you can get in.
People get drunk in Tokyo, but they don’t get rowdy. You might have a few businessmen, ties askew, attempting to drunkenly practice their English on you, but this is not a city where you’re likely to run into serious trouble.
The Tokyo bar scene is all about good drinks, good food, good music, all taken in an establishment that’s about the size of your lounge room.
No other city can compete.
Which city do you think has the best small bar scene?
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