The first laneway bar in Melbourne was set up by a group of architects who wanted a quiet drinking spot convenient to their practice. Meyers Place was tiny and didn’t serve food. It was made possible by Victoria’s new small bar licence, introduced by Premier Jeff Kennett’s Liberal government to allow Crown Casino to open a strip of bars along the riverbank. Laneway bars became a notable feature of Melbourne’s nightlife and helped to reinvigorate the city centre.
In 1837, when surveyor Robert Hoddle laid out what became known as Melbourne’s Hoddle Grid, the major streets were exceptionally wide. For service access, the grid provided laneways, many of which, over the years, became squalid polluted spaces filled with rubbish. In the 1980s, the Melbourne City Council set a goal of drawing residents back to the city centre, which included a clean-up of laneways and programs to inject new life into these forgotten spaces. By the 1990s, many laneways had been pedestrianised. Cafés and small businesses were able to take advantage of low rents and street art transformed lanes into outdoor galleries.
Until 1994 it was illegal to serve liquor unless food was available. In spaces too small to support a kitchen, opening a bar with food was not feasible. According to Craig Allchin, one of the original owners of Meyers Place, the small bar legislation was introduced to make life easy for the operators of Crown Casino. “The casino’s owners didn’t want to take the risk of operating under a single liquor license, which could have been revoked if there was an incident of bad behaviour,” he told Urban List.
Meyers Place operated for twenty-three years before the landlord declined to renew its lease. It subsequently reinvented itself in another laneway, Crossley Street, only to close in 2021 in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. While Meyers Place was the first laneway bar, it soon had company. It’s an ever-changing scene. Melbourne is now home to countless small bars including stayers Bar Americano, Bar Lourinha’, Section 8 and Romeo Lane. Other states have since introduced small bar licences as a means of revitalising city precincts.