The streets may still be relatively deserted and the city quiet as the grave, but the government in Australia has allowed a few bars to slowly open their doors. Any bars that have a kitchen and the capacity to serve food are allowed to have a total of ten patrons as long as those patrons are intending to eat.
It reminds me of the way nightclubs worked in the late 80s-early ‘90s. In those days, to have a restaurant licence meant could stay open until 3am, so by law the bouncer had to ask if you were there to dine. There was one nightclub on Oxford Street where this question was regularly asked, and we of course all said we were, yet I don’t think I ever saw a person go into that kitchen, much less any of the appliances ever used.
But that was then and this is now. We are no longer in a time where carefree attempts to bend the licensing laws had no consequence. Instead we are in the midst of a pandemic that has already infected over 5 million people worldwide. So when we ventured through the doors of Burrow, one of the few cocktail bars in Sydney with a legitimate kitchen, we were actually there to dine.
Burrow is one of those hidden bars, a little difficult to find if you don’t know where it is but well worth the effort once you find it. Down an alley off George Street, near Wynyard Station, it has become a bit of an industry hang out. It is a place that bartenders will spend their their night off or even come in for a quick drink on their break.
Run by co-owners Chau Tan and Bryce McDonough, the bar is dark, moody and perfect for experimenting with flavours and bottles you may not yet have tried.
Yet during the closures and isolation, the bar served not only as a space to dispense bottled cocktails but also a place that fed many fellow hospitality that were out of work. While selling merchandise from their own bar, they established a communal website Hospothreads to allow other bars that may not have shopping carts on their website, a place to sell their merchandise as well.
With the slogan ‘Covid has slowed us but it can not stop us’, the bar became a symbol of resilience and ingenuity. And this dexterity extended to cocktail classes that the bar ran over zoom as a way to connect with their regulars.
“With the classes that we were putting on, we found a lot of people coming back repeatedly,” said McDonough. “Financially speaking it was never an alternative method but a trickle economy is better than no economy at all.
“It was just enough to prove that we were viable and that we could tread water while we tried to see what our plan would be post-covid. It just mean that hitting the pause button wasn’t an absolute freeze, it kept us motivated and from a connection perspective, meant there was still continued engagement.”
But now the bar is open, if only to a small number. Walking down the corridor of a bar that is normally packed with patrons to see only a few people, is a peculiar sight, but there is an unusually joyous atmosphere among the few bodies present. Happiness from the staff to be doing again what they love and happiness from the patrons to be yet again allowed in.
Tan explained there was a general feeling of relief. “I almost burst in to tears on the first day. It was just really emotional to see the bar ready for service and then just people bouncing in as soon as the doors opened. It was such a relief, it was super emotional, it was really nice. It made it feel like it was the right thing to do.”
That same bond that kept their staff, as well as the patrons they serve, together during the lockdown is the very thing that has helped during the reopening.
“We’re not here to make money,” McDonough adds, “we’re here to try and help create community again.
“I don’t think the restrictions themselves are that frustrating,” he continued. “Just being able to trade again means that it’s worth putting up with this and as long as rent relief and jobkeeper still exist then we should be OK.
Tan points out that people have been very understanding of the restrictions. “People understand that if we’ve got 10 people in the bar already, they have to wait. We’ll take their name and number, encourage them to go for a walk and then call them.
“The hardest thing has been when they come into the venue and they are seeing people they haven’t seen for three months that they have to stay distanced. We literally have to stop them, so it’s a little like running a daycare centre a times, that’s the only hard thing, otherwise everyone has been really good.”
While restrictions are set to ease further throughout June, McDonough thinks that things will not immediately return to normal. He believes that once everyone has their doors open again it could be up to three months before there is a true understanding of the long-term impact.
“It’ll come down to how people are spending, how everyone is playing and how the bars themselves adapt to what has been the forced evolution of an industry that really hasn’t changed much, except through gentrification, over the last twenty or thirty years.”