10 May 2019

Misfits rejoice! Insanity and creativity welcome at Smith’s.

| Alex Tricolas

Nigel McRae may be a bit of a misfit. A creative eccentric with a rakish demeanour more accustomed to holding the infamous Backyard Backanalia events in Canberra’s leafy-lefty inner north than running a full time hospitality business, he is the first to admit that he entered into his new life as bar owner with some ambivalence.

And Smith’s Alternative–a misfit itself–may be the perfect place for him. A kind of thinking person’s café and bar, this grungy, colourful and beautifully faded space has always seemed to exist purely for culture and for art.

Last week, he re-opened the bookshop-come-bar, café, live performance space–more out of a desire to facilitate Canberra’s cultural growth than his own personal gain–after the previous management had walked away, unable to make a go of it.

“I had the ideal life,” he says. “I had time, I had money, I had friends, I had lovers. My life was just full of joy and pleasure and very little stress.” Giving up his version of the ideal life as a bohemian backyard musician and party host was not an easy decision, but the alternative was to let Smith’s die, leaving Canberra one small venue poorer for local performers.

“In the last two years, this was a terrible business,” he says. “But what the previous owners did well was turn the place into a great venue. They had a great sound guy, they had a great stage and it quickly became an essential part of the local music scene.”

Nigel was intimately involved with Smith’s prior to its close, essentially as an organiser of local music acts. He says that during that time, he has had hundreds of conversations with patrons about what they liked and what they didn’t like. “I never wrote a list or anything, but I would say there are at least a hundred small things that have changed.”

At this point, I must endorse three things that have changed: Firstly, the coffee is really good. Supplied by Young roasters Art of Espresso, it is a massive step forward. Secondly, the delicious range of baked goods, made in-house. Thirdly, a bar stocked with a small but quality range of wine and sprits. Including my old favourite, Johnny Walker Black (Fuck you, Hipsters).

The things that won’t be changing, however, are the things that made Smith’s unique in the first place. Perhaps echoing the sentiments typical of a Smith’s regular, and like some kind of Statue of Liberty for the arts, he says this: “I want this to be a place where you come and be yourself and allow other people to be themselves. I want Smith’s to be a place for the insane, the artists, the creatives, the poor, the old.”

At the heart of his mission is a long held desire to shift mainstream sentiment about Canberra’s arts community. “For a long time, Canberra was full of people that hated Canberra, and they felt like they were here in some sort of exile. They didn’t want to know anything about what was happening. They just lived their lives and then took off to Sydney or the coast at every opportunity,” he says.

“Their general perception has been that if anything is happening in the local community, then it is shit. We (his partner, and the people in the Canberra Musician’s Club, of which he is president) have been working for a long time to change that perception because we know there is tons of great stuff happening, that there is a great little arts scene, and we are always bewildered that the rest of Canberra totally ignores it.

As for that ideal life that he is already missing, he says he will hang around long enough to make the place viable and then give it to the staff. If he can help build a community of people who are united in their love of this town and a love of the local culture and arts scene, it will have been a worthwhile venture.

I sincerely hope that he can pull it off. I don’t know that he will, but I do know this: Bars will open and close. Each of them will burn brightly for a season or two, a perfect Instagram post for whichever human brochure happens to be active, a beautiful god-like poster child for the Canberra is so hot right now advocates; but in order to express itself fully and authentically, Canberra will always need supporters of art and live music, poetry and performance, and Canberra will always need venues such as Smith’s Alternative.

Smith’s Alternative is located at 76 Alinga St, Canberra
it opens seven days until midnight

Check out Smith’s Facebook page
Check out Smith’s website

Weekly Wrap

Canberra is renowned for its restaurants, bars, arts and culture. If you want to know what's going on in and around the nation's capital, sign up for our weekly newsletter and have all the best of the Canberra community delivered free to your inbox.

By submitting your email address you are agreeing to Region Group's terms and conditions and privacy policy.