Adelaide is an odd place when the sun goes down. It's like the whole city has small-man syndrome — it doesn't care what you think but also desperately wants your approval. The nightclubs here are either dead empty or packed to the point of being a fire hazard. It's a city of strange opposites, but it's my city, and I'm proud of it.
But to love something is to also love its faults, which is why I went out last Saturday night. I wanted to revel in Adelaide's night-time shitness and see if it made me feel pride, defensiveness, nostalgia for my student days, or shame. So I turned to yelp.com to find the city's worst nightclub reviews, and set out to visit the bottom six.
Here was the list:
2. Red Square
4. The London Tavern
What Yelp said: "I've been here only once. Never again. That is all. Oh, you want more? Feel free to go along, pay the ridiculous cover charge, and see why I avoid this place like the plague."
Things kicked off with the $10 cover fee to get into Apple, but besides a lone bartender, the place was dead at half ten. It was a nice space with bar staff that looked like they could sling a cocktail. Downstairs smelled like industrial strength antiseptic and the only people in the place were hanging around upstairs listening to hip hop. Everyone looked about 18 and the DJ played to an empty dance floor, which was romantic but also quite sad.
In spite of what some of the reviews say, the door-staff were really quite lovely, although they got a little defensive when I pointed out that the place was empty. "You should have been here last night," said one. Then they worked out I was writing an article and they wanted to know what I'd say. I said it was about Adelaide's nightlife and the guy told me Adelaide's nightlife sucks because of cheap flights to Melbourne.
This is a common sentiment. This city has always had a confidence problem and our insecurity soaks deep into everything we do. As a people, we will always be the first to explain, in very clear detail, how terrible we are to anyone who cares to listen. But the moment an outsider has something to say on the subject, we're already halfway across the table with a knife in our teeth.
What Yelp said: "Ah, Mansions. I don't have too many recollections of Mansions from the boozy haze that was my first year at uni, but I remember it being quite the dingy old bar. Nowadays, a place like Mansions isn't so appealing."
Mansions is Adelaide's premier seedy restaurant by day/bar by night, while also catering to the university pub-crawl circuit with a firm belief that volume always trumps quality.
But unfortunately the place was closed for a private function.
The London Tavern
What Yelp said: Cheap drinks! Cheap drinks! Did you kids hear they have cheap drinks? This place is a bit of a dive on weekends, but it's a damn popular one for the reasons listed above. Do not go here to meet people because the people often get into fights. Do not go here to have a nice chat, because it gets bloody rowdy Saturday nights. Go here to drink.
Next I made the Rundle Mall run to the London Tavern, which is another shady restaurant-slash-nightclub deal in a basement on North Terrace. I'd heard the stories about the place: of seedy drunks doing terrible things in the booths and of on-leave army guys starting brawls. But I saw none of that. What I saw were a bunch of sticky floors, some jaded, veteran glassies who would drop you rather than take any crap, and a bunch of kids having a good time. So I took photos on my phone and left.
Outside I overheard a young woman talking with three cops twice her size. It was kind of a cute tableau so I took a photo and she responded with some standard Adelaide smack talk. "YEAH, GET A PHOTO OF ME FOR YOUR LITTLE JOURNAL LOOKING FUCKING STUPID!"
Aggression has long defined Adelaide's nightlife, which is why a few years back there was a push among small venue operators to nurture a new style of social interaction. At the same time a national conversation about drinking culture began, and Adelaide's players spied an opportunity. It was thought that a 'small bar' license and a 3am lock-out policy might change Adelaide's drinking culture, and maybe even stop knifings along Hindley Street.
Concurrently, savvy property developers and councillors realised there was money in a boutique bar scene, and they too pushed for law reform that finally came into action on April 26, 2013. The Liquor Licensing (Small Venue Licence) Amendment Bill unleashed the small bar upon Adelaide and the things quickly multiplied like E. coli on a petri dish. However, a large part of our city's partying still goes down in Adelaide's beer barns.
What Yelp said: The corrugated iron roofs and the raw wood is a look that should stay in the country. I can't help but get this incestuous vibe from the Woolshed whenever the upstairs club music starts pumping and people begin getting weird. It's creepy to say the least.
Of all the McClubs in the city, The Woolshed is the least unpleasant as its country-themed cladding lacks the pretence of almost every other club. The Wooldshed does its best to cater to as many demographics as possible, so while the classics were blaring on the ground floor, teenyboppers down in the basement were singing along to Blurred Lines. It's also a place where the everyone loves to have their photo taken.
The main attraction, however, has always been the mechanical bull, with its strange hypnotic pull over 40 year-old men and young women. On balance, The Woolshed wasn't bad. Dull in parts, weird in others, but certainly not awful.
What Yelp said: There are certain deviant behaviours that are illegal on Adelaide streets, but somehow acceptable in this club. Ever had your arse groped on the dance floor of a club before? What about your front bum, ever had that grabbed? If not, go to Red Square, it's an experience you'll never forget.
Red Square was, and always will be, uniquely awful. But then I met these guys on the street, who explained that was the whole point.
"I may be going to Red Square later because my friends may be in possession of illicit drugs," Tanamia told me outside on the street. "It's the only reason I would go there. It's shit. But then we go there to enjoy the shitness."
I will defend Adelaide's nightlife against outsiders and haters alike. It's no Ibiza, but we do the best with what we've got.
Red Square, however, is the one exception. This is the operation where the venue manager was given a three-year suspended sentence last year for helping his security team to stomp a guy into the pavement. Thinking about this, I paid the $20 cover to get in a place that smelled of body odours and chemicals, and where I had all my biases confirmed watching hundreds of people crushed on a tiny dance floor, bathed in red light, all stoned out of their minds.
What Yelp Said: I got so bored here that I found myself sitting at the foot of the spiral staircase playing "guess which colour underwear that chick has on" and watching girls walk up the stairs. Do you know how many girls don't wear underwear at HQ?
My final stop for the night, HQ is considered a birthright for the people of Adelaide and visiting at least once is mandatory. It's also an interesting sociological phenomenon worthy of further study. In some, HQ inspires a complete, unshakable devotion. For others, it sparks a red-eyed hatred as the root of all evil. There is no middle ground and that exact quality is what puts HQ in that upper tier of social institutions occupied by evangelical churches and the two-party preferred electoral system. Wherever you stand, what's undeniable is HQ's ability to pull in thousands every weekend to move amongst a sea of bodies while a DJ rules over them like some high priest.
The people drawn to that sort of thing aren't looking for something so bourgeois as witty banter or charming atmosphere. What they want is serious drinking. They want to show off their muscles and cleavages and maybe get laid. For a little while they want to be somebody inside a music video before they have to go back to school, or their nine-to-fives, where most of us are nobodies.
I left at 3am, at which point the city's lockout was in force. All that civic pride had exhausted me. At least my arm looked like it had a good time.
Follow Royce on Twitter: @RoyceRk2