Neighborhood Watch: The Laneways in Adelaide

A proliferation of small venues has brought big changes to this once dingy Australian neighborhood

WORDS Max Anderson
July 2018

Hains & Co gin and rum bar. / Photography by Claudio Raschella

It’s early on a Saturday evening, and the streets of Adelaide’s West End are already spilling with color and noise. Empty glasses congregate on pavement tables. Lantern strings cast light over urban nooks decorated with street art and laid with faux lawn. Someone, somewhere, breaks into song: 

“We’re the pride of South Australia, we’re the mighty Adelaide Crows. We’re courageous, stronger, faster, and respected by our foes … ”

Many of the people here today—me included—are wearing the regalia of the local Australian Rules football team, the Crows, who will take on Melbourne’s Carlton later at the Adelaide Oval sports ground. 

For my pre-game drink, I pop into the Pink Moon Saloon. The bar, jammed into a narrow service lane off Leigh Street, suggests a mountain lodge, albeit one that’s only 12 feet wide. Inside, the walls are lined with Tasmanian oak; exposed beams support a steeply pitched roof. As I enter, the barman pipes up with Adelaide’s traditional greeting, which is part exclamation, part question: “How y’goin’?!”

The steeply pitched Pink Moon Saloon

The Pink Moon is one of 50-odd bars and restaurants that have popped up over the last few years in the Laneways, a network of loosely connected alleys that cut through the city’s lively West End. These compact and often eccentric venues have taken over abandoned shops, gloomy basements, hidden tunnels and the occasional rooftop, largely as a result of a new class of liquor licensing for small venues, which was introduced here in 2013, creating one of the most dynamic and unusual nightlife destinations you are likely to find.


Before this, the Laneways did not exist—at least not as a neighborhood. They were simply a series of grimy rat-runs that served mainly as short cuts for office workers, or a place to sleep off the effects of the night before. Most of them connect onto the West End’s Hindley Street, which, traditionally, has been known mainly for its boozy nightclubs, sketchy fast-food joints and burlesque bars (although Hindley, too, has enjoyed an upswing in recent years). 


Sitting at the bar of the Pink Moon, a guy named John—who has flown in from Melbourne for the game—reflects on the Laneways’ revival. “I can’t believe Adelaide is suddenly cool,” he says. 


Adelaide can’t believe Adelaide is suddenly cool!” laughs a local girl named Denise. 


If the small venue license created a kind of pop-up entertainment zone in this West End enclave, a wider transformation has resulted from another radical initiative—or, as some locals might see it, an act of desecration.


Established in 1871, the Adelaide Oval has long been one of the world’s most sacred cricket grounds. Bordered by the River Torrens and a strand of pleasant parks, it stands as a living shrine to the great Australian batsman Sir Donald Bradman. Or it did until 2014, when the city splashed out AUD $535 million (around $400 million U.S.) on transforming the stadium into a gleaming multi-use complex whose roster would feature not only cricket but—and here’s the bit that got some people’s backs up—the brash Australian Football League. 


“At the time,” says local guide Scott Bray, “it’s fair to say it was pretty controversial.” 


Bray works for RoofClimb, an outfit that helps Crows fans access one of the new Oval’s loftier innovations: rooftop seating. Tonight, I’m occupying one of the 14 seats that have been tacked onto the curved canopy of the Western Stand, 160 feet above the ground. To reach the area requires being tethered to a rail and led by Bray on a bracing half-mile walk over the roof of the stadium. 


Below my seat are 50,000 hollering Australians; to my left is a middle-aged Melbourne fan named Jacko, who looks as if he might jump out of his seat if he wasn’t attached to it. “Gee, it doesn’t get any better, does it?” he says. “Come on, Carlton!” 


Along with allowing for an astronaut’s-eye perspective of the game, the RoofClimb trek also provides stunning views of Adelaide. 


The inner city is compact by Australian standards, a square-mile grid surrounded by parklands (a defensible moat of greenery that was said to be as wide as a cannon could fire). After it was established in 1836, the city prospered. You can see evidence of this fact along the North Terrace boulevard: the neoclassical State Parliament building, the sprawling Governor’s residence and a row of handsome Victorian-era museums. 


To the west, however, Adelaide is a forest of cranes. “Five years ago, this skyline was completely different,” Bray says. “Then the government decided Adelaide needed to embrace its river and invested $5 billion.”  


In terms of the Laneways, and the West End overall, the ripple effect was immediate. With double the capacity and a year-long schedule, the stadium reliably draws 50,000 spectators most weekends. That’s 50,000 fans wanting to either celebrate their victory or drown their sorrows. 


“With every game, the city comes alive,” Bray tells me over a fearsome roar (Adelaide has scored). “With all the new bars and restaurants in the West End, it’s no longer just about the footy or the cricket—people are making a night of it.” 


After Carlton “cops a flogging” from the Crows, I join the hordes of fans pouring from the stadium. We stream on foot for 500 yards, across the new footbridge spanning the softly lit river, through a gap between the State Parliament and the Casino, and onto Bank Street—a part of Adelaide’s other urban miracle. 


The Laneways revival started five years ago on Leigh Street, then a semi-gentrified yet slightly dull alley, where the owners of a tapas bar called Udaberri were challenging the city’s intrusive licensing laws. The State Attorney General heard their story while he was taking a beer with them, and realized that their plight was also Adelaide’s problem.


Adelaide’s first Small Venue License was granted in 2013, limiting holders to serving no more than 120 people. The initiative was accompanied by generous leasing arrangements from the city council, and bright young entrepreneurs didn’t need asking twice.


Leigh Street was closed to traffic and opened to pavement diners, and Udaberri was joined by two new bars: Casablabla (offering salsa lessons and a crazy little beer garden) and Pink Moon. Soon, hardly a week would go by without another new spot opening on one of the surrounding lanes: Peel Street, Gilbert Place, Topham Mall, Anster Lane, Gresham Street, Bank Street. 


I round a corner onto Gilbert to find a lively crowd seated at tall tables outside Hains & Co, a gin and rum bar that opened in 2015. The interior has a nautical feel: The bar top is made from old jetty timbers, the banquettes are leather, and maritime relics are lit in a way that evokes the below-deck of a sailing ship. 


Owner Marcus Motteram was drawn here in part by the relatively inexpensive licenses on offer, and his bar—like others in the area—has a mend-and-make-do feel to it, which adds to the character. “Throughout the Laneways, you’ll see people have had to be crafty with their interior design,” he says. “This was actually an old stable, and whenever I drilled a hole in the wall the plaster inevitably fell off. So I’d be left looking at a hole, thinking, ‘Well, I could patch it, or I could leave the brick exposed and hope people will love it for its texture.’”

The Honey Trap cocktail at the Hennessy bar at the Mayfair Hotel.

Even today, the proliferation of small venues continues. Late last year, Hains & Co gained a trio of new neighbors: Kaffana, a chic Serbian restaurant with a glowing little rooftop bar; Red October, which has bare stone walls and serves contemporary Russian food; and, downstairs, its sister bar, Suzie Wong, a dark, seductive space that serves Asian food and boasts South Australia’s largest selection of whiskey. 


There’s a number of speakeasy-style hangouts in the Laneways, including the new Bank Street Social, an underground cocktail bar that has a steampunk feel to it. Nearby is Maybe Mae, a 1950s-style cocktail lounge (green-leather booths, spindly barstools) accessed via a “secret” door in a tunnel. Both venues have become extremely popular, despite being difficult to find.

Thrift Shop is so well-hidden I practically need a bloodhound to find it. Inside, true to its name, the bar is a clutter of castoffs: brilliantly bad artworks, bulging-at-the-seams sofas, mismatched cocktail glasses. 


“None of the furnishings in here cost over 100 bucks,” says bartender Tom Egan. “The most expensive thing is the old record player. It’s cozy and homely, a bit like your nana’s house—only there’s a bar in the corner.” 


Many Laneway bars have food menus, which is a challenge in a state known for its discerning palate, and which produces 50 percent of Australia’s wine. So, staying true to the overall feel of the neighborhood, local owners have chosen to go funky, with remarkable success. 


“Not so long ago, Adelaide people expected white linen tablecloths and waiters talking them through the menu,” says Michael Johns of Peel  Street’s gourmet burger restaurant, Bread & Bone. “Now they want it ‘quick and dirty,’ so it’s about wood-grilled burgers made with quality beef. And they’ll buy a quality wine to go with it.”

Raw yellowfin tuna served on charred edamame beans at Shōbōsho

I duck through another tunnel and am back on Leigh, scanning the menu at Shōbōsho. After a year in business, this award-winning Korean-Japanese barbecue joint has become a local favorite. Seated beside a buzzing galley kitchen, I order the signature dish: raw yellowfin tuna, cubed and served on charred edamame beans with crunchy Korean anchovy and a cream of smoked bonito. It’s one of those meals that leaves me mentally Rolodexing my list of friends, so keen am I to share it.


My night ends back at the Pink Moon Saloon, the cozy mountain hut with the tiny footprint, where I catch up with co-owner Marshall King. “Y’know, I’ve got regulars from Sydney now,” he says, eyebrows raised. “We’re at this really great stage in the Laneways. We’re getting to be a world-class precinct in terms of bars and restaurants, but it still comes with all the affability of Adelaide.”


While King is confident that the neighborhood’s transition isn’t over yet, he’s less sure what the next few years will bring. 


“It’ll be interesting to see what the next wave is,” he says with a smile. “Will we get even smaller places?” 


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