Speakeasy Group’s Eau de Vie Darlinghurst had long established itself as one of Sydney’s premier small bars, with whisky lockers and cocktails that helped people create many memories and won the bar many awards.
But when the time came to close the venue, Speakeasy Co-Owner Greg Sanderson, said that knowing, or believing, it was not a forever move, certainly made the decision any easier one.
“It was 100 per cent in our minds that we were going to bring Eau de Vie back,” Greg told The Shout‘s sister title, Bars and Clubs. “I don’t think we would have been so keen to close it, if we hadn’t been talking about [reopening it]. Even though Eau de Vie Darlinghurst closed during Covid, it wasn’t really Covid that was the reason for closure.
“Anybody that has been around Sydney for a while knows that Kings Cross was far from what it used to be, and that all started with the lockout laws that really affected the area. So for a long time we had been speaking about when the lease ends we would move Eau de Vie to a better location.
“At one stage there was a building being built across the road from Eau de Vie in Sydney and it was quite a large development so we thought it bring some might life back to Kings Cross and the area, but I did some research into the building and it was a retirement village.
“Then the Eau de Vie lease came to an end during Covid, so we just thought we’ll get our deposit back and start planning where we could bring it to life again. Eau de Vie and all our other venues in Melbourne are based in the CBD but Melbourne and Sydney CBDs are different beasts. There’s more residential people living in Melbourne CBD, but the CBD is a place where we are comfortable doing business, so we definitely wanted to move into a CBD location, or around The Rocks.”
So Greg and business partner Sven Alemming then went about the process of finding a new location for either Eau de Vie or another concept, and despite a large number of spaces being available, Greg said it was important the pair stuck to a principle of the partnership.
“As we began coming out of Covid we started looking at opportunities, and obviously there were quite a few developers and landlords that had spaces available. Then we did a walk around Sydney with an agent and we came across the space that we are in now.
“There’s a bit of a rule that Sven and myself have in our partnership, it’s either two ‘fuck yeahs’ or it’s a ‘no’, and we looked at something like 15 different spaces that day and the space on George Street was the only place that was two fuck yeahs. We had level one for The Sanderson and the basement was perfect for Eau de Vie.”
That was some time ago with the venue being heritage listed, meaning the planning, application and build all took a long time, as Greg explained: “It wasn’t just taking over an existing space and putting something in, but you also get the advantage that nobody is ever going to walk in and say ‘oh this used to be such and such’ and we like starting in fresh spaces for those reasons.
“We like to have venues that are easy to get to and hard to find, so in the middle of good areas with lots of restaurants, other bars, lots of foot traffic but still hard to find off the main road. We are above Wynyard Station, on George Street, so the foot traffic is just insane, but you still have to look for us, which we know because we have already pissed off new guests trying to find us.”
And in terms of the look and feel of the bar, Greg said: “When you walk in you definitely know that you are in Eau de Vie, we have the vintage cocktail shakers on display, a huge backbar of whisky, whisky room and the whisky lockers, so it’s the important elements of what we see as Eau de Vie.”
He adds: “It definitely feels like a bit more of a grown up version of Eau de Vie, and what I mean by that is a lot of the tables at Eau de Vie Darlinghurst were coffee table height and 12 years ago that was pretty much common to have tables that height in bars and nightclubs. But at Eau de Vie Sydney all the tables are all dining height. And myself and Sven, when we go out we just love eating and drinking at the same time, and we’ve noticed that with a lot of our guests in Melbourne and other venues, and maybe it’s a post-Covid thing, we see food being a much more important part of the experience; where people are eating food and drinking cocktails, and by creating a space where that is a lot easier, it becomes a lot easier to say have a great date night in there. So one of the key differences for us is actually the table height, which a lot of people probably wouldn’t notice when they got there.”
And in terms of how the venue is performing and the currently catchphrase that Thursday is the new Friday, Greg told Bars and Clubs: “We’ve never operated venues in Sydney CBD before, but we do have lots of experience in Melbourne CBD and really Thursdays are good, Fridays are still bigger than Thursdays and Saturdays are just as big as Friday, so for us, the week still progresses.
“We definitely see upstairs in the restaurant that Thursday and Friday lunches have been very similar. It feels to me, and we didn’t operate these before Covid so I don’t have much information to go one, but it feels like the old big Friday lunch has now been split over Thursday and Friday, and it’s kind of the same with the Thursday night crowd. Midweek is building, it is definitely building but there are some nights, like late on a Tuesday for example when the city seems pretty quiet and those nights are building as people become more aware of where we are.”
Eau de Vie Darlinghurst was an iconic bar, that was well loved by many patrons over the years, and while you know you are in Eau de Vie when you walk into the new space, we spoke to Greg about the challenges of putting such an iconic bar into a new space.
“One thing that we knew going into this is that we were not going to recreate Eau de Vie Darlinghurst for some people, no matter what we did, it’s never going to be the same venue for some people. And Eau de Vie has such a strong place in a lot of people’s hearts. We’ve had so many first dates, wedding proposals, people sharing special moments and we know we can’t reach these people.
“But we have had loads of people coming in saying ‘this is great’, ‘it’s almost grown up’ and they have grown up with it, and it’s a more sophisticated version of the bar. But for some people we just can’t meet the memories that they created in the old venue, so we just tried to understand what the elements of Eau de Vie were that really made us who we are. And that was customer service, great customer service, and we also wanted to put more focus on the food this time around because of the kitchens we have available.
“Then we made sure we had the whisky room and the whisky lockers, which were very popular in Darlinghurst and they are popular in Melbourne, where pre-Covid we had something like a two-year wait. And here we just thought we have more room so let’s put more lockers in, so we put something like 80 in the new venue which about double what we have in Melbourne and just means that we can have more people involved in this whisky locker.
“And then we’ve just tried to do what we do, there’s a massive whisky collection. We thought about the seating throughout the venue and making sure that every seat in the house is a great seat. And when you are starting from scratch it’s easier to get the flow right and make a few adjustments, we’ve improved a lot of things that are mostly for the staff working in the venue, but now George Street just needs a bit more of a lived-in feel and that comes with time.”
As well as the look and feel of the bar, the new venue has launched with an updated cocktail menu both in terms of its look and feel, but also its content.
“We actually launched that menu at Eau de Vie Melbourne about three weeks before we opened Sydney and then the new menu launched into Sydney. So, and this is what we have done previously, when we launched the two menus in Sydney and Melbourne are the same, but then as we trade more we’ll see those lists change with some drinks dropping off in some venues and so the Sydney menu becomes more of a signature of Sydney.”
The new bar also has a new cocktail menu and Greg said creating the new menu was a process they went through many times and with the pandemic meaning the group lost key staff at key times that saw the process extended. But it’s been worth it, as Greg explained.
“We’ve stylised the cocktail menu into flavour categories and then there are four or five drinks in each of those categories. Then the name of those categories come from a character that you would fine during prohibition.
“The thing here is that our menu really tries to get the guest to have the right drink in their hands as quickly as possible. You can read the Tartan Fresh category and find out about the story of Constantino or you can jump straight to the red writing at the top that says ‘Margarita and Daiquiri fans rejoice, these are for you’. So if you are someone who normally drinks a Margarita or a Daiquiri, just choose one of these and you’ll have a fantastic experience.
“When you come to Eau de Vie we want to exceed your expectations and give you a drinking experience that you can’t get anywhere else. That’s why we have our signature cocktails, but if you want to come in and order a Margarita, we can make you a great Margarita, but we’ll probably urge you to try one of the Tartan Fresh drinks, because it’s a drink you can only get at Eau de Vie.”
Eau de Vie is open now with entry on Wynyard Lane, don’t go to 85 George Street and it has a separate liquor licence to The Sanderson upstairs, so it is a small bar licence and is open and serving cocktails until 2am on Friday and the floor is open until 1am during the week.
This story was first published on Bars and Clubs, click to subscribe to the weekly newsletter.