No neon signs. No espresso martinis. No nonsense. That's the deal at new South Melbourne wine bar, Smalls.
The embargo on "done to death" neon was written into the design brief by Smalls' owner Jess Ho. And instead of the ubiquitous espresso martini, she'll happily serve you a coffee with a shot of Fernet on the side rather than messing with the beautiful gin and vodka they stock.
"If you do want something trashy, there's a pub around the corner," suggests Jess in all seriousness. "Also, it's not child friendly in here," she explains, now laughing, "if you get too drunk you will fall on someone." Sounds like a good way to make new friends to us.
The old adage "fingers in many pies" is apt when it comes to the new bar-keep. Jess has been a food blogger, journo and editor, developed events as part of Bottle Shop Concepts, tried her hand at competitive wine-making during Baptism of Fire and played crucial roles front of house, behind the scenes and online for various culinary hotspots around town. She is even dabbling in reality tv, calling it as she sees it as an expert for Restaurant Revolution. With the addition of her first sole venture in Smalls, Jess says she is "just really enjoying owning a bar and being the most hated woman on prime time."
The trickiest part so far has been changing perceptions about how far away South Melbourne is from the CBD ("it's closer to the city than Fitzroy!"). The locals' however are enthused. "They're saying 'there's stuff happening now. There's you guys [at Smalls], there's Hats and Tatts, Lume...we never have to leave!'" recounts Jess.
So what's keeping them in the neighbourhood at Smalls? Good glassware, trend-averse grazing dishes and wallet-friendly mineral water on tap. Jess says the space has a "loose" vibe that lends itself to hosting "hip hop dudes smashing margaritas and truffled croque monsieurs all night" right alongside a table "slow-plating it with 18 oysters followed by five plates of jamon." It's also a place in which to be incognito.
"I've spent so long working in places where people just go to be seen. This is more the bar you go to to not be seen. You can hide here, you can have a date, you can come with a few friends but it's so small you're not going to run into someone you know."
There are three key factors at Smalls that will hopefully keep the bar humming decades ahead: lots of wine, chameleon-like service and espousing products made by the little guys. "I don't want to use things that are by big companies—obviously that's not the mentality we have—I don't want to be under the thumb of a large corporation."
The bar, which resides in a space adjoining St Ali, is small in ethos, in name and also quite literally, only has room to seat a couple dozen punters. So get in early: you know what they say about things that come in small packages.
Image credits: Nick West for The Urban List