Newcastle, Australia: Whiskey and taxidermy

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Newcastle, Australia: Whiskey and taxidermy

When I was told the bar-cum-restaurant was speakeasy-themed that seemed enticing enough, but then it had three other attributes which were beguiling: it “specialises in fine whiskey, taxidermy and provisions of the Europas” the note said.

Dunno 'bout you, but they had me at “taxidermy”.

And when I mentioned I was keen to check out a particular bar to the young man at the desk of the Crowne Plaza in Newcastle, an hour or so north Sydney, he listened with interest then laughed aloud when I mentioned it by name.

“I knew you'd say that one. And it's a secret place too, did you know that?”

And so the Coal and Cedar, just around the corner from the hotel, had another layer of allure added.

The young man told me where it was but warned there was no sign outside and I might just have to knock.

It was still too early for whiskey and taxidermy but out of curiosity I walked the few hundred metres just to check it out. And sure enough it looked like the door to a bank or insurance company on an otherwise bland section of busy Hunter Street.

So after dinner around the corner I went back and arrived in time to see two young couples turned away by the hip doorman with a short ponytail. Well, I figured if they weren't cool enough I knew I certainly wouldn't be a contender . . . but he waved me with a cheerful welcome and explained they'd wanted a table and the place was full.

“But if you're happy to sit at the bar . . .”

“Always,” I said as he pushed the inner door open and ushered me into a busy, happy and long room which had a dozen or so small tables for dinner at one end, a lovely lengthy bar with bottles stacked to the ceiling (“Hello boys,” I whispered to these old friends) and a small but busy kitchen at the other.

The Coal and Cedar, I quickly learned, was my kind of place. The staff greeted me like a returning pal, the music was audible but discreet blues (Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf etc) and the place had a busy, warm and friendly vibe.

I ordered a 10-year old Bushmills – they apologised profusely for not having a 12 which was my preference – and deliberately sat myself at the bench by the kitchen to chat with a guy busily making attractive antipasti platters.

It used to be an old bank, he said, and the old vault was still in the other room but they'd only taken over this half of the floor area.

The Coal and Cedar had been only open six months, he said (although their website says “2013”), and had been founded by a couple of guys who'd run bars in Sydney. With low lights, dark timber and brick walls, and dozens of old photos and paintings around the walls, the place had a comfortable, almost early 20th century feel. But it wasn't some hipster-only joint – they let me in – and there were people of all ages chatting and laughing, as people should do.

I asked the chef what time they closed: “Usually late, sometimes even later,” he laughed.

It seemed only polite to order an antipasto platter and so I did, the small one (A$19 if I recall).

IMG_4203When it came it was enormous, certainly built for two, and apparently the meats were all locally sourced. It was superb and required a second Bushmills.

The Coal and Cedar is clearly an open secret, although unless you know the exact address you'd be lucky to find it, and they have themed nights (the music of Johnny Cash, hot dog and chili dog nights, A Night on Bourbon Street) as well as live music.

An acoustic band was just setting up as I made to leave. There's a photo on their Facebook page of a band playing on the bar. I guess that happens late, or sometimes even later.

As I was leaving around midnight and the kitchen looked to be closing, I complimented a barman on the place and how professional the staff were.

“No students here, mate,” he laughed and then went back to his busy work of making people happy.

If I lived in Newcastle or nearby, I would have this as my favourite bar. And I wouldn't tell anyone that it's as 380 Hunter Street, through the glass doors and turn right.

Oh, and the taxidermy?

Why don't you just go and find out for yourself?

Be prepared to stay late, sometimes even later.

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