So here's the situation. You're a single female staying alone in a hotel in central Sydney. You've been buried in meetings or a conference room all day and come evening you want to be out and about in search of some good local tucker and a robust Aussie red or two. But you also want to lose the conference creep who keeps asking if you have 'plans'.
Once upon a time a stroll around the blocks surrounding your hotel produced commuters fleeing the city and your only company were the leaves blowing down the empty streets.
Instead of the chic city eateries and cute bars of home, you were surrounded by closed shops and offices, takeaway joints and raucous pubs with garrulous Aussie blokes and large screen TVs tuned to Australia's unofficial religion, State of Origin.
What a difference a few years and some good lobbying can achieve, thanks to the hard work of people such as Martin O'Sullivan who is a passionate wine and foodie and president of the Small Bar Association of Sydney. It's not to be confused with lawyers drinking up large but they, along with many other professionals in the city, now have some decent places to whet their whistles and sate their appetites.
O'Sullivan says that since new drinking laws came into effect in 2007, there has been a steady demand for more intimate watering holes.
According to local government, the laws were designed to "promote small, vibrant boutique bars and places to listen to live music, as an alternative to large-scale, noisy, TV and pokie machine-dominated existing venues." They could have added "and save women from the booze holes with undesirable company to match."
O'Sullivan lost no time in taking advantage of the changes and his latest venture is Grasshopper Bar and Eatery, tucked down the ironically named Temperance Lane. The locals whinge and moan about finding this place, but it was a doddle to locate, honestly. Just look for the RM Williams and Oakley stores on George St, and the lane is located between them. Duh.
So what does O'Sullivan, the champion of the small bar, offer as a host? Grasshopper is a French-style bar downstairs and an eatery above, with comfortable second-hand tables and chairs, soft lighting and a cracker kitchen that you can sit and admire from the safety of the restaurant bar, perfect if you're flying solo. In keeping with the small but beautiful idea, the portions are civilised but not overwhelming. Offal gets a big tick and the cheesecake dessert is so far removed from the great Australasian weighty slab of cream cheese and biscuit crust, it almost floats to the table. The drinks menu is an eclectic mix: Italian, Spanish, French of course and Australian. O'Sullivan is keen to add some boutique New Zealand wines to the list too, if he can get a good supply, but if wine is not your tipple there is an extensive cocktail menu to sample below stairs.
I'm always drawn to the water in Sydney, but not the touristy bars and bland cafes that surround The Rocks area. So here's a find. Tucked into a historic building in Argyle St is a tiny bar and tasting room that's a perfect example of the small bar initiative that O'Sullivan promotes. Wine Odyssey is like a Melbourne bar landed in Sydney, up a couple of stone steps and through a Victorian door. To the left is a parlour with comfortable chairs, sofas, objet on the mantelpiece and art on the walls. Deep purples and chintz glint in the late afternoon sun and really it would be rude not to order a glass from the excellent selection of 44 Australian wines (or a local beer or cider.) There's a coffee machine if you've had a really hard day, but Monday to Thursday there's a stupendous happy hour which, in the great tradition of imbibing, actually spans two hours, going from 4.30pm-6.30pm. For just A$10 you can have two glasses of wine and there's a tasting menu to match which covers the basics of cheese, olives, calamari and charcuterie.
If your hunger hits before the bars open (and the mini-bar's peanut selection doesn't appeal after a hard day conferencing) you can join the queues gathering outside Jamie Oliver's first Southern Hemisphere venture, Jamie's Italian, in Pitt St. Again, it's just a gentle stroll from most of the inner city hotels and better still, you can share a table with other solos in true Italian style if you have to. Here the Brit-imported wait staff will have you seated and satiated within the hour and the menu runs all day from late morning.
I'll let you in on a secret. A bowl of exquisite pasta and a glass of wine under $25 may be a distant memory in Auckland, (okay Andiamo and SPQR excepted) but it's alive and well in Sydney. A bowl of Risotto Milanese (creamy saffron and parmesan risotto with herby roasted bone marrow) hits the spot on a chilly autumn Monday for just A$14. Wash it down with a glass of Running with Bulls Vementino for A$8.50 and bob's your uncle. The Italian bread selection (on the house) is okay, just slather it in a decent amount of the provided olive oil and she'll be right. Word has it that this place hums even on the weekend, when the city traditionally shuts down apart from the luxury brand and department stores down the road, so it would be the perfect place to relax after a spot of trawling through the sale racks at David Jones or Myer before you jump on the evening flight home.
Best of all for us business gals, these new haunts make it possible to go out alone in Sydney and find sleeze-free zones that are sophisticated and welcoming and safe to walk to and from. I'll drink to that.
Other small bars to try, but take a date:
* Absinthesalon, Albion St, Surry Hills
A homage to the Belle Epoque era in decor, and to the famous drink absinthe. You can sample over 20 different types but at 75 per cent proof, customers are restricted to just three drinks. Just one shot of this stuff will make for a memorable evening. Trust me.
* Balcony Bar, Erskine Street, CBD
It's worth ditching your heels so you can get up (and down) the very narrow stairs to this bar, which is the epitome of Sydney's cool elegance, but without a trace of pretentiousness. You'll feel like making this your local even if you're visiting. Dress smartly and you'll fit right in, but don't overdo it. The wine list is a terrific romp through Australia's best, complemented by great tapas, and best of all, it's well-priced.
For more info on Sydney attractions and accommodation, visit destinationnsw.com.au.
Josie McNaught flew to Sydney courtesy of Qantas, which operates daily services from Auckland and Wellington.