One of the biggest gripes of Perthites is that the city has too few small bars. Like Sydney, the city is plagued with huge, impersonal pubs and bars, breeding drunken crowds, rubbish service and loud, conversation-killing music. Think the Brass Monkey or the Subiaco Hotel.
Luckily, the situation is changing and small bars are sprouting up everywhere. This is thanks to changes in liquor licensing, and more specifically, with the introduction of the “small bar license” permitting the licensee to serve alcohol in venues accommodating less than 120 people. Supported by the Small Bar Association of WA, this welcomed change in legislature has seen the arrival of fantastic small bars like Helvetica, Tiger, Tiger and – my new favourite – 399.
Pronounced “three-nine-nine”, this quirky little cocktail bar is nestled in the heart of Northbridge’s Chinatown amongst pho bars and Asian grocery stores. In fact, you’d be forgiven for having a hard time spotting it on your first visit. Unassuming though its exterior may be, 399’s interior is anything but. The small venue comprises a long, narrow space punctuated by soft lighting, Elvis gospel melodies and the lovely sound of ice rattling in martini shakers.
Deep booths line the wall facing the bar, filled with happy regulars sipping their favourite cocktails and enjoying the tapas-style menu. Yes, 399 knows how to mix a cocktail. These bartenders are some of Perth’s best – no cocktail request, however unheard-of or imprecise goes unanswered. The bartenders seem, in fact, to relish the challenge, seeing as how there are no cocktail menus.
My nostalgic request for a Lemon Drop (my go-to cocktail in the States) was mixed to perfection. Just sweet enough to forgive the absence of a sugared rim. My second order for “something citrusy and sweet, but not too tangy” produced the yummy Breakfast Martini (so named for it including marmalade and grapefruit). Definitely worth the hefty price.
For 399, the challenge is to avoid becoming a just another trendy Perth bar – attracting the rowdy and fickle Northbridge social scene who could spell death for the small bar by flooding it with business, turning off the current loyal patrons and then moving on to the next “it” bar. Macca, one of 399’s bartenders, told me that they’re happier to stay under the radar and receive word-of-mouth referrals rather than attention by the mainstream media. “The article about 399 featured in last weekend’s West Australian is really a double-edged sword,” Macca said. While the media mention is nice for getting the word out, 399’s more interested in maintaining the bar’s cozy atmosphere and focusing on providing excellent service alongside high-quality food and drinks. 399 is happy being a “community bar”, and I for one am very happy to become a member.
Parting advice: what ever you do, don’t mention Melbourne. But do try the Breakfast Martini.