Small bars making a mark

Hidden behind an unassuming facade in a basement on St Georges Terrace is a "carnival-style speakeasy" captivating patrons with its attention to detail - from drinks and service to handcrafted pewter bars from France and tea cocktails served in delicate cups.

Bobeche's old-world charm has proved popular with those who prefer a cosy environment with a focus on top-notch au courant drinks.

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Andaluz, Helvetica, Ezra Pound and Mechanic's Institute are just a handful of the small bars making a big impression in Perth.

Also catering to a demand for quality drinks created by skilled staff are cocktail bars such as stalwart Luxe and one of the newer kids on the block, The Classroom.

"With the introduction of the small bar licence as well as a move away from the traditional corner pub we have seen a new section of smaller, more-boutique venues arising," says bar owner Stephen Vetten, from Lafayette.

"The popularity of these venues has been helped by a more educated consumer seeking a better quality product and higher level of knowledge and service."

Bobeche - part of The Heritage Brasserie - was based on successful venues in North America and Europe, general manager Edward Wolkowinski says.

"A speakeasy is designed to be a little hidden . . . where conversation can be enjoyed," he says. "The space is not intimidating to be in alone, which makes them appealing to a broader demographic."

Bobeche aims to remain timeless, including the pewter bars, which were chosen specifically because they would "wear beautifully with age". "While some new venues opening have expiry dates, this is not one of them," Mr Wolkowinski says.

Mr Vetten says the small bar model will continue to be popular and profitable, but "natural selection will weed out any weak venues". "There definitely will be an expiry date," he says.

"In the past year, there has been a sharp increase in the number of venues in the CBD and surrounding areas while there has been a large void that needed to be filled, (but) the pool of customers is only so big."

Luxe owner Andy Freeman attributes his 12-year-old bar's strength to a focus on service.

"Some bars will come and go - that's simply the circle of life in our fickle industry," Mr Freeman says.

"Trends come and go.

"To stay current you have to work hard. No secret recipe, just hard work."

Many bar owners say they have felt the pressure to keep prices down, but a commitment to offering a quality product plays a big part in calculating prices.

"Price sensitivity in the market is noticeable; customers are looking for value," Mr Wolkowinski says.

Mr Freeman says the economic downturn will be reflected in the "spend per head".

"We try to duck and weave our way through the minefield of twists and turns in our economic climate," he says.

His advice to those who want to open a cocktail bar: "Love working harder than most, working weekends, late nights and dealing with all walks of life and get Foxtel - there's nothing on TV when you get home at 3.30am in the morning."

Perth has been overrun with super expensive options. Getting back to basics . . . is where it is headed. " Edward Wolkowinski, The Heritage

The West Australian

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