Chic Bars with a Gangster History, Sydney

By Abi King | Australia

Jun 24

The door is unmarked and a slim girl walks in, dressed all in black. Outside, the street stays empty and I swerve a little, mind blurred, eyes drowsy, the vertical bars tilting each way as I try to stand straight.

The bouncer looks me in the eye as if to say “Well? Are you coming in?”

I’m in Sydney’s deadliest district. And I’m very, very tired.

My story began around 72 hours or so earlier, when I left the snowy peaks of Granada to drive, fly and then kayak my way to the Darlinghurst district of Sydney.

The Razorhurst story, on the other hand, took off over 70 or so years ago, when the streets between Surry Hills and Woolloomooloo swam in the blood of the notorious razor gangs. At a time when alcohol after dark was banned, a cluster of bootleg bars appeared behind the guise of laundromats, flats and in corners where police feared to tread, no guise at all.

Sly Grog

This being Sydney, the term was “sly grog,” which to me conjures up devious amphibians bouncing around with bottles of beer. But then, I am deranged with jetlag, not helped by a shot poured from a giant moose hoof by someone called Muffin Man.

But I digress.

Back in the Razorhurst of the 20s and 30s, sly grog progressed to cocaine as an industrial pursuit and in the absence of firearms, razors became the tool of choice for gangsters who needed to go about their daily killing business.


Hoof drink bars in Sydney

What truly stands out in the grisly Razorhurst story, was that the heads of the rival gangs were women. Tilly Devine and Kate Leigh, in fact, former prostitutes turned homicidal matriarchs on account of a peculiar legal loophole that made profiting from prostitution a crime for men but not for women.

Stranger yet, the girl I’m with right now knew one of them. (Well, her parents did and I’m not taking any chances.)

Roll through the years and another piece of legal gymnastics is putting the Darling back into Darlinghurst. Apparently, licensing laws have changed again, making it easier for small bars to compete with the larger chains that until now have characterised the Sydney bar scene.

And so the circle is complete. On the streets where hidden bars and fake laundries used to sell liquor, hidden bars and fake laundries once again sell liquor. The only difference is that this time it’s legal and the razors have gone.


We turn a corner and head into another unmarked bar.

The sawdust may have gone and I’m ever so thirsty for sleep. But after everything I’ve heard,  I’m keeping my eye on the door.



I visited these bars in Sydney as a guest of Destination NSW and Ketel One Bar Tours led by the fabulous Ms Darlinghurst. Tours start at $55 including food and cocktails but if you’d prefer to go it alone, good luck and read on:

Razorhurst Bars in Sydney

Darlies Laundromat – 304 Palmer Street

Shady Pines Saloon – Shop 4, 256 Crown Street

The East Village Pub (formerly the Tradesman’s Arms)- 234 Palmer Street

Love Tilly Devine – 91 Crowne Lane

razorhurst bars in sydney


About the Author

Abigail King is a writer and photographer who swapped a career as a doctor for a life on the road. Now published by Lonely Planet, the BBC, CNN, National Geographic Traveler & more, she feels most at home experimenting here: covering unusual journeys, thoughtful travel and luxury on

Camels & Chocolate June 24, 2012

Funnnn. Sydney is one of my favorite cities, and I hope to get back there soon!

    Abi King June 26, 2012

    Yes – and I’d love to do this tour again when I’m feeling more awake!

pip August 29, 2012

I live in Darlinghurst, and love how much the area has changed since the introduction of the Small Bars Act. Shady Pines would have to be my favorite but every week I’m wandering the streets in search of new little bars in unknown corners… its like Sydney has become Melbourne but with better weather!

    Abi King October 15, 2012

    It’s so nice to hear of a story where the introduction of bars made somewhere a BETTER place to live! Let’s have more of that!!

Peter P June 17, 2014

I went to Shady Pines and a few others in Surry Hills and Oxford Street area. Had nay idea! Luckily I always keep my wit sharp and have been known to bootleg it in a hurry a few times :)

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