Take a Brooklyn aesthetic, top-shelf creative cocktails and one of the most moreish Reuben sandwiches in Sydney. Blend them together, then place the mix in a graffiti-plastered room with barred windows, hidden away in a multi-level car park. The result is Uncle Kurt's, Parramatta's first small bar and winner of the Time Out Neighbourhood Bar of the Year 2018.
"I wanted to create a bar in Parramatta that takes absolute pride in what it does – that pursues uncompromising excellence," says owner George Makram, who founded Uncle Kurt's in late 2016. "The bench mark was the best bars in Sydney, Melbourne and New York City ... There's a lot of people in Parramatta who travel to Potts Point, Newtown and Darlinghurst to drink in small bars, so I felt there was a need for a local."
To that end, George took a research trip to the U.S. "I was thinking about a Brooklyn vibe, so I headed off. I spent time in Brooklyn, Williamsburg, Bushwick and Clifton Hill, where I looked into the gentrification process and the hipster movement. I tried to find the look and feel I was after, as well as the service style, food and drink."
Every handcrafted cocktail served in the 45-seater space features premium spirits and fresh ingredients, made from scratch in-house, by head bar tender Alex Coleman and his expert team. The signature Westside, for example, contains kaffir lime leaf-infused gin, yellow chartreuse, citrus, sugar snap pea, honey and ginger. Then there's the Poor Man's Mezcalita, another original, made up of smoked tequila, dry vermouth, sage honey, citrus and hopped grapefruit bitters.
"It's like liquid cooking," explains George. "We make our own syrups, infusions, tinctures, bitters and perfumes. We dehydrate fruits and vegetables ourselves. We carve our own ice daily."
Beyond the ever-changing signature cocktail menu is a solid list of classics, such as the Old Cuban, the Penicillin and the Naked and Famous. Plus, at 4pm daily, $10 Negroni Happy Hour clocks on, signing off at 6pm. For non-cocktail drinkers, the craft beer selection is an international journey, beginning in Australia, crossing the Tasman to New Zealand and then the Pacific to the U.S. Just a few of the drops behind the bar are Young Henry's Newtowner Ale (on tap), Sour Puss Raspberry Ale from Camperdown's Wayward Brewing and Brooklyn Brown Ale.
When it came to putting together the food menu, George took inspiration from New York City's Jewish delis. That means bagels, po' boys, hot dogs and toasted sandwiches. A favourite with Uncle Kurt's regulars is the Uncle's Traditional Reuben: two slices of New York-style rye bread, crowded with smoked brisket pastrami, Swiss cheese, Russian dressing, coleslaw and pickles, then toasted. Meanwhile, animal-lovers can get their fix with the Veggie Jaffle, packed with wild mushrooms, capsicum, pear, cinnamon, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and Russian dressing. Overseeing the kitchen is Turkish-born head chef Baris Sahin. All food and drink orders are taken and served at the table: there's no bumping elbows and jostling for space at the bar.
On top of the emphasis on food, drink and service excellence, what makes Uncle Kurt's special is its utter lack of pretension. The atmosphere is laidback, friendly and low-key – unlike in some inner-city bars – and the interior, largely a DIY job, is genuinely grungy and arty. Tin recovered from a 19th century inner west terrace covers the front of bar, seating is in the form of mix-and-match wooden and metal chairs and the banquette along the back wall is made of a recycled bar top. "We did pretty much all of it ourselves," George says.
And the striking feature wall looks it was created during an all-night party. The centrepiece is a striking portrait of the Statue of Liberty, but with a skeletal face and clinging to a meat cleaver, rather than a torch. Come evening, the cleaver lights up in bright pink neon. It's the work of Alex Lehours, whose street art has been in-demand with numerous international brands, including Rolling Stone, Converse, Armani Exchange and Facebook.
Surrounding the portrait is an explosion of graffiti, created by a bunch of young artists, who might otherwise have been tagging in illegal spaces. "We got some music, some pizza and some beers, and asked them to go crazy," explains George. "We told them, 'Use your branding, use everything – this is a legal way to have a creative outlet.' There was no plan and no intention, and they loved it. They loved being able to paint without having to look over their shoulders or worry about getting into trouble."
From the outside, however, none of this artwork is visible. White bars obscure Uncle Kurt's windows, keeping its secrets from passersby, and there's neither an official street address nor external signage. In fact, anyone walking past without knowledge of the bar might easily miss it, which is part of the adventure. George says, "The space used to be an accounting firm and then a roller blade place. It's such a weird, quirky spot and I just love the rawness of it ... There's next to no foot traffic, so most people who come have heard about it through word of mouth." That said, occasionally, the alternative hip-hop soundtrack spills into the night air and, on Fridays, queues often form, giving away that something or other is going on in the otherwise non-descript, nightlife-free street.
Last, but certainly not least, who is Uncle Kurt? "He's a Jewish deli owner I met in Bushwick," says George. "As the area became hipsterised, his nephew turned the deli into a small bar. So the name links with our Brooklyn feel and our deli-style menu."
Uncle Kurt's is in Horwood Place, in the City Centre Car Park, about eight minutes' walk from Parramatta Station. Opening hours are Tuesday-Thursday, 4pm-10pm and Friday-Saturday, 4pm-midnight.
Horwood Place Parramatta 2150
4:00pm - 10:00pm Tuesday - Thursday, 4:00pm - Midnight Friday - Saturday